Thunder and lightning and The Book of Knowledge

   Posted by: John G. Whitacre   in Books

Wanting to read a copy of our most famous Christmas poem, I consulted “The Book of Knowledge — The Children’s Encyclopedia That Leads to Love of Learning.” My edition was published in the United States by The Grolier Society Inc., New York, in 1946-47.
The encyclopedia was first published in the 1920s (see comments at the bottom), and rather than being organized alphabetically, each volume presents assorted topics, so browsing each book offers a wealth of well-illustrated information on astronomy, science, Wonder Questions, animals, plants, countries, the United States, fine arts, literature, famous books, stories, poetry, golden deeds, and things to make and do. My edition is divided into 20 volumes, two volumes per book, with Volume 20 containing an extensive index. 
The books are well written and would be challenging reading for children, but I suspect that adults of the early to mid 20th century expected more of youth, at least if these books and the famous “Letter to Virginia” proclaiming the existence of Santa Claus are typical examples of writing for children.
I often turn to The Book of Knowledge for information I can’t find in any of my adult books. For example, an essay in Volume XVII on the origins of Santa Claus gives the names St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Bonhomme Noel, and Knecht Clobes for our Christmas visitor. The essay said that Santa is the ghost of St. Nicholas and that in France, at least in the 1940s, Bonhomme Noel was accompanied by another ghost, Le Pere Fouettard, Father Whipper, who carries on his shoulder a wickerwork basket filled with birch rods that he leaves for naughty, greedy or cross children. Also in France at the time of writing, children hung up sabots, or wooden shoes, in front of the hearth.
“Santa Claus very often takes a human form,” says TBOK. “There are so many chimneys in the world, and children will wake up so dreadfully early on Christmas morning, that nowadays even a ghost has not time to go all round the world in a single night. So the ghost of St. Nicholas splits itself up into little atoms of kindness, and these atoms, like seed thrown from a sower’s hand, take root in the hearts of fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts, and guardians and friends, and turns them all, on Christmas Eve, into Santa Clauses.” 
The section titled “Poems of Christmas” includes illustrated Christmas carols; Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which everyone now calls “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”; and “Old Christmas” by Sir Walter Scott. Moore, it is said, wrote his poem for his children, but a house guest copied the poem and submitted it to a newspaper for publication without Moore’s knowledge. It’s worth noting that in the original, the reindeer that we call Donner was Donder and perhaps Dunder. Both words mean “thunder,” the former in German and the latter in Dutch, and Blitzen is German for lightning. We encounter thunder and lightning in the Strauss polka “Unter Donner und Blitz.” If I understand correctly, Blitzen is a lightning flash and Blitz is lightning. (German nouns are always capitalized, as were English nouns until the 1800s or so.) It’s possible that Moore used the Dutch term because New York was originally a Dutch settlement, although a literary scholar named Don Foster in the book “Author Unknown” declares that a man named Henry Livingston, of Dutch descent, not Moore, wrote the poem, and that Donder and Blitzen were originally the Dutch Dunder and Blixem. Concluding the section of Christmas writing in TBOK is an abridgment of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with several drawings to illustrate the story. 
I like the feel and heft of a well-made book, and The Book of Knowledge is such a set of books. The paper is sturdy but soft to the touch, the drawings are attractive, and the books offer hours of browsing for adults as well as children. Books like these are why I would never want to read electronic editions. Keep your Kindle; I’ll take three-dimensional Grolier, which concludes the essay on Santa Claus with this advice:
“Learn from this story that Santa Claus, even if he comes in your father’s or your mother’s person, is still the loving spirit of the good Nicholas.”

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