Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of. . .

Go ahead and say it - what right do I have to do a 'best of post'? Hardly anyone even knows there's anything here to begin with, no less some of which can be titled "best".

I was giving myself the week off for blogging, but one lazy holiday eve, I was futzing about my own archives and came across two old posts I wrote in this blog’s infancy. The topics still interest me and since they are holiday oriented, I decided to re-post them today in excerpted fashion (and, admittedly, I couldn't bear not to correct some horrific grammatical errors). If the topics interest you at all, you can just go the original article for the full version, but you can get the gist here.

Excerpt from Nov. 2, 2006 – A Day of Thunder and Lightning.

"Why is Wednesday spelled so funny?

Most people seem surprised to learn that it is named after a once popular Norse (Northern Germanic-Scandinavian) god named Odin, sometimes Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, etc. His Old English or Anglo-Saxon name, Woden, was most ungracefully brought into the English version of the days of the week as Wednesday, which we happily pronounce as if it was spelled Wensday.

- - - - -

Given the precedence our culture seems to give to things Greek and Roman, you would think we would name the days of the week after their gods, as we have the planets (most of the traditional planets are named for the Roman or Greek gods and titans). But with day names our Teutonic heritage won out, and this honor is given to Odin and some of his children. This includes the Norse god of war, Tiu or Tyr, from who we derive Tuesday, and Frigg, Odin’s wife, a goddess of marriage, from whose name comes Friday. Odin and Frigg were the parents of many of the other gods.

And, of course, today is Thor’s Day or Thursday (from the Norman Thur). Let’s give Thor special attention, as he has bulled his way into our culture in several other ways besides being a day name.

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Thor has also come down to us in a softer, more magical and familiar form who we call Santa Claus . . . . Although the Santa we are used to is a composite character, this isn’t stretching at all. Consider these overwhelming facts.

. . . . Santa and Thor are both are both big bellied, bearded Northerners who wear hats; Thor preferring a helmet and Santa a cap. Santa wears a belt, Thor a magic girdle. It gets better.

Some of Thor’s other names are Donar, Thunor or Donder. That last one probably sounds familiar and it should. We’ve all grown up hearing about Santa’s reindeer Donder. Could it be just a coincidence? It’s not at all, because hooked up next to Donder is Blitzen, their names meaning thunder and lightning, one Thor’s name and the other a related attribute. So not only is a day of the week named for him, but so are two of Santa’s reindeer as related in A Visit From Saint Nick a/k/a The Night Before Christmas. The author of the poem didn’t call the reindeer Thor, because he used the familiar Dutch versions Dunder and Blitzem in the original version of the poem before publisher’s made their own revisions.

Ah, but Santa flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by Donder and Blitzen and the other magical four legged horned reindeer. Can we say that about Thor? Pretty much yes, except they weren't reindeer, they were goats. That’s plenty close enough. But it's not all. The modern version of Santa Claus probably starts with Washington Irving's Knickerbocker Tales. He correctly put Santa in a wagon, which was soon after changed to a sleigh by others.

What about Santa’s toys made by magical elves. Piece of cake. Thor carries around a magic hammer, Mjolnir, made by magical dwarves. Dwarves? Elves? Who cares? Magical little folk who peopled Norse mythology.

Now maybe it would be more convincing if Thor ever had an experience with, say, a magic sack like Santa carries his toys in, or something like that. In fact, he did that too, though never pictured with it now in modern renditions. In the relatively few stories we have of this mighty god, he is involved with a sack in one story and a box of provisions he carries on his back in another.

You might point out that Santa Claus is a jolly fellow and that Thor was a pretty serious guy, if not in serious need of anger management. That is true, but St. Nick’s jolliness is a 19th century American creation, and the older Santa or Sinter Klaas, as the Dutch called him, was quite dour.

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Poor dead god of thunder. At least his two boys, Magni and Modi (strength and anger) survived to carry on in the new world -- the one you and I exist in. We can imagine that it was these children who made sure that we probably all say their father’s name at least once a week if not more, just as we would this morning if someone asks us what day it is. Just tell them it’s Thor’s Day, and we are all the richer for it."

Excerpt from Sept. 26, 2006 – Read this on the night before Christmas

"Santa Claus is the focus of Christmas for us secular folks. An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, which most of us call The Night Before Christmas, created the modern vision of Santa, and is the greatest Christmas poem ever written (d’uh), probably tied with A Christmas Carol as the greatest post-gospel Christmas literature.

Everyone knows that The Night Before, as I call it here was written by Clement Moore, right?

Actually, no, not everyone.

Ever feel like you are the only one who read a book? I highly recommend Author Unknown by Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College. Mr. Foster has made a name for himself by analyzing anonymous literature and determining its author. He is probably most well known for correctly pointing to Joe Klein as Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors, and had previously identified, maybe correctly, a 17th century poem signed by “WS” as written by Shakespeare. OK, hard to appreciate that one – we all know that those are Shakespeare’s initials, and we can never be quite sure.

Most fascinating is Foster’s argument that The Night Before was not written by Clement Moore as everyone thinks, but by one Major Henry Livingston. He convinced me, and I’m pretty skeptical. We’ll get to the details below.

Foster’s method is combining research skills with modern technology, utilizing computer software to count and analyze the actual words used by the anonymous author. . . .

. . . .

I first read about Foster’s theory in a newspaper article a few years ago. Last year I read the book, and, between you, me and the wall, some it was a little tedious. But not the Santa stuff. That was intoxicating. With apologies to Professor Foster for simplifying his exacting research, here goes.

The Night Before was published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a small newspaper in Troy, New York. Moore took credit in 1844 . . . about 17 years after Livingston was dead and many years after the poem was first publicly attributed to Moore himself.

Major Livingston, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was part Scottish and part Dutch, which is quite important. The first words he wrote that are still known and existing are “Happy Christmas” in a 1773 love letter to his future wife. Those words will prove more important than you think.

Henry was a journalist and illustrator, using wacky pseudonyms like Peter Pumkineater and Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo. He was quite a fun loving fellow and father, writing many whimsical poems for his children that were never published. According to his family, he wrote The Night Before in 1807-8 for their enjoyment, many years before it was published.

Clement Moore was a very wealthy man of English loyalist descent from a very old and rich American family. He was a biblical scholar and a terribly dry and pious man. He took his religion and poetry quite seriously, even declining an invitation from Washington Irving to join the gregarious St. Nicholas Society. Moore was a somber fellow, somewhat un-Santa like, and quite the opposite of the jolly Livingston, at whose home holidays were joyous affairs.

I had always pictured Clement Moore as sort of an American Fezziwig. It turns out Livingston was Fezziwig and Moore was a little more like Scrooge, bah humbing at all the fun parts of holidays and life.

Still, comparing the vivacious Livingston to the dour Moore was not what convinced Foster. Moore it seems found anapestic poetry (go with it, that’s the type of poetry The Night Before is, and has to do with that jumpy and fun meter) intolerable, while Livingston wrote quite a lot of it. The first evidence of Livingston’s poetry in this style dates to the 1780s when Moore was just a boy, and continues on for fifty years. Moore had only one in that style which Foster believes was based on similar poems by Livingston, and which is quite different in tone from The Night Before.

Foster makes two extremely convincing analytical points. The first concerns the word all which he points out can be a pronoun meaning every one, or an adverb meaning totally. The author of The Night Before used it to mean totally four times ("all through the house.” “all snug in their beds,” “dressed all in fur,” and “all tarnished”. He also used to mean "everyone," five times. Roughly even.

So what did Foster find when he looked at Moore’s and Livingston’s known writings to see how they used all. Livingston’s usage was fairly evenly split, half pronoun, half adverb, just like The Night Before’s author. Moore on the other hand used all as a pronoun ten times for every once he used it as an adverb in his poetry, and a hundred to one in his prose.

Foster identifies the usage of all as an adverb as a particularly Scottish trait (part of Livingston's heritage) and less an English one (Moore's heritage). The earliest known usage of all snug (meaning tidy) was by a Scotsman named Allan Ramsay, who happened to be one of Livingston’s favorite poets. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gave the Ramsay source, gives one other early source of All snug (by then meaning cozy), by one Christopher Anstey, who also turns out to be another Livingston favorite. Yet another early use of all snug also turns out to be by a third Livingston favorite, John O'Keeffe. Livingston 3, Moore 0. Getting convinced?

Foster had me at all snug, but another word usage was even more convincing. The Night Before ends with "Happy Christmas to all" (later editors changed Happy to Merry). Now recall Livingston’s use of that awkward phrase "Happy Christmas" in the letter to his future wife. Was it just a popular phrase, now antiquated, that anyone might have used at the time? No. In fact it was always quite rare. But not for Livingston. If he did not write The Night Before, he sure had an amazing amount in common with its real author. Not Moore. His usage of Happy Christmas or even Merry Christmas, for that matter, was zero.

To tickle you with a little more mystery, despite the fame it had brought him, Moore never took credit for the poem, first printed it in 1823, and first attributed to him in 1836, until some eight years later, and only after he had written and received a reply to his letter from the original publisher and learned how he had acquired the poem. What Moore was told (the letters still exist) would have told him that anyone who might contradict him was dead. He published the poem as his own in a book called Poems which is strangely silent as to how he came to write it.

There’s a lot more evidence in favor of Livingston (and to be fair, some for Moore) which Foster outlines, such as the use of the Dutch Dunder and Blixem instead of the Donder and Blitzen (both mean thunder and lightning) in the great poem (often changed by modern publishers) and Livingston’s unusual usage of the exclamation point, also just like whoever wrote The Night Before.

That’s all you get here. Go buy the book. It costs one penny! (plus shipping and handling, but you know Amazon has a lot of free holiday shipping). It will also move Foster up in the Amazon rankings. He deserves it. So does Henry Livingston."

We're done. Do I dare ask for suggestions for a "Worst of" post. Have a Happy New Years.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    I hope to God you discover spiked eggnog this Christmas.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .