Christmas poem set many holiday traditions

TERRY MAURER, WHAT'S IT WORTH?December 16, 2012 

In today's What's It Worth?, a reader wants to know if she has a valuable version of Moore's classic 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas.

Q. This children's book has been in my family for a long, long time. We take it out every year and is a part of our holiday decorating. I know the story has been around almost forever and, since this full color book was published in the late 1900s, I always have wondered about its value or lack thereof. What can you tell me? -- Kara in Kennewick

A. A Visit From St. Nicholas -- also popularly known as Twas The Night Before Christmas -- set many of the customs and traditions of the Christmas holiday we know today. For example, in the early 1800s the primary day for exchanging gifts was New Year's Day.

Moore's poem, depicting the "right jolly old elf" delivering presents from a reindeer-pulled, airborne sleigh on Christmas Eve, re-enforced an emerging trend to celebrate the holiday on Dec. 25.

The verses largely are responsible for our ideas about Santa Claus from the early 19th century to today.

What he looks like, how he is dressed, the night he visits, how he gets around, the number and names of the reindeer -- even the the tradition that Santa brings toys to children -- all can be traced to the poem. It was first published, anonymously, in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper.

Clement Clarke Moore was a well-educated New Yorker who studied and taught at what now is Columbia University. A prominent landowner during the post-Revolutionary War development of New York City, he initially disassociated himself from the famous poem.

Moore thought claiming credit for A Visit From St. Nicholas would detract from his standing as a scholar. A professor of Greek and Oriental literature -- and a published poet -- he perhaps was otherwise best known for his two-volume Hebrew dictionary.

This soft-cover version of the book, illustrated with marvelous, colorful chromolithographs, is among the most collectible and valuable. Published by McLoughlin Brothers of New York City in 1896, it is the first edition by that firm.

At 15 inches high, this fairly large book was designed for children, or to be read to children. Reading Twas The Night Before Christmas had become a holiday tradition in many American families before Moore died in 1863.

Rarity and condition are everything in the book world. This is hard-to-find under any circumstances and when one does turn up, the condition is usually pretty bad.

Even though the 16-page book was printed on high-quality paper, it doesn't have the protection hard covers give a book. They were handled, particularly by children, and that can be rough on any book.

This examples, despite a few minor bumps and bruises, is intact -- with original staples -- and has not been written or drawn in.

Condition would be considered excellent. In poor to fair condition, The Night Before Christmas can bring $50 to $100. The beautiful color illustrations are worth that much as salvaged art.

We have seen bookseller listings of this volume for upwards of $800, and that seems like a fair retail price for a volume in this condition.

There was a real St. Nicholas; a fourth century Greek born in what now is Turkey. He is the patron saint of more than 100 occupations and groups of people, including newlyweds, pirates, brewers and shoe shiners. He is known as the friend and protector of all in need or troubled. And, appropriately, he is the patron saint of children.

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

* Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by e-mail to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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