It was quite a challenge, even for one accustomed to the kind of theological bantering in which seminary professors so very often find themselves engaged. For while everyone had long before heard the basic story, the question was how could he express it again so that small children, including his own, might begin to grasp its deepest meaning?
It had taken, after all, the best efforts of such giants as Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul to interpret the birth of Jesus to those first few generations of adult believers in the church, and to make it more than just a beautiful story or, worse yet, merely a lovely legend surrounding His nativity. So how could anyone expect little children to truly understand that the birth of Christ was nothing less than the very incarnation of the living God in this world and the ultimate manifestation of His self-giving love?
Unless, of course, the children could have an experience of that kind of all-accepting and self-giving love for themselves. For what the good professor realized is that most of us, even as adults, need concrete examples of such things in order to comprehend them, even if the example itself is more mystical and imagined that it is real.
And so the New York City Old Testament scholar began what was to be perhaps his greatest work of New Testament interpretation, “translating” not the story itself but the idea of God’s self-giving love which lays behind it, and enfleshing it all in words that might have meaning even for the wee ones among us.
Himself the son of a bishop, he based his character upon both a local Dutch handyman and an ancient bishop in Asia Minor who had been renowned for his deeds of kindness to others. Though clearly small–tiny enough to drop through chimneys in fact– he made his elf rather “jolly and plump,” because that seemed to be the kind of personality which kids and others most enjoyed being around.
He likewise Americanized the Dutch name of the bishop and then he wove his tale of this mystical figure around an extraordinary idea indeed: a once-a-year visit in which his character would leave gifts for children not because they had earned them, or even deserved them, but purely and simply because he wanted them to have them!
And the rest, as they say, was history. For the character which Dr. Clement Clark Moore described quickly became a favorite, and the story which he wrote, “The Night Before Christmas,” an enduring classic. Indeed, though the original stature of that “little old driver” and his “miniature sleigh of tiny reindeer” have usually been forgotten, the picture which he created in 1823 remains the basis for most popular portrayals of St. Nicholas even today.
Only it seems that since the time that Dr. Moore fashioned his “translation” that folks have misused “old Saint Nick” in a way that I’m certain that the professor would never have intended. For whenever parents or others propose that Santa Claus will only bring toys to those kids who have been “good,” they’ve rather messed up the symbolism of the whole story, I think.
After all, Jesus Christ didn’t come because our behavior merited the birth of a Savior. Rather, as St. Paul once expressed it, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption.” God’s Christmas gift therefore was simply His grace wrapped up in the form of a child, given purely and simply because He loves us.
To be sure, Professor Moore, ever the distinguished teacher of Oriental Languages, was hesitant to acknowledge his authorship of the poem at first, not wishing to somehow “dilute” his academic credentials. But his kids may indeed have rescued Mr. Moore from himself at that point.
For clearly, nothing else the erudite doctor ever wrote in his scholarly career ever received such acclaim as his simple children’s story about “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Maybe that’s because Christmas itself began with a child, and that’s part of what makes the whole idea so incredible.
After all, I’m pretty sure that Isaiah didn’t promise that “for unto us a soteriological solution to the vexing problem of human peccability is born.”