St. Nicholas and the Advent of Children’s Literature

In the days leading up to St. Nicholas’s feast day, my eight-year-old son—as coyly as an eight-year-old can—reminded his parents that this feast day was approaching. At one point—perhaps his least coy moment—he reminded us that last year St. Nicholas had procured goodies from the household pantry (and not the best goodies, he might add) and that the adults in the household might need to remember this past foible of St. Nicholas and relay the message somehow. The adults took note.

The point of this story is that some readers of this journal may sometimes worry about the obnoxiousness and the materialism that my son, and other children like him, exhibit toward religious observances tied with secular holiday traditions: perhaps this worry feels especially acute as Christmastide approaches. Admittedly, this worry is one close to my heart as I raise two children in our modern culture, where rampant consumerism is hard to separate from the holiday season writ large. The Vatican no longer requires that Catholics observe St. Nicholas’s feast day because of the legend of Santa Claus and the materialist trappings wrapped around the holiday.

Historians tend to blame Clement Clarke Moore and his famous 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” for introducing that “jolly old elf,” Santa, into the cultural zeitgeist. Santa Claus, from that point forward, could no longer be separated from St. Nicholas in American culture. The cultural drift away from St. Nicholas being recognized as the early Christian bishop from Myra that he was—and the patron saint of merchants, sailors, and pawnbrokers, in addition to children—became too far asunder, it seemed.

Yet, in our acceptance of, and anxiety about, the secular and religious collision that takes place during holidays like Christmas, we fail to recognize children’s power of discernment, or their ability to recognize truth from fiction—religion from play. While Moore’s poem was popular in the nineteenth century, there was another nineteenth-century literary homage to St. Nicholas that arguably foresaw and responded to some of the secular and religious slippage we witness in our culture now. This other ode to St. Nicholas has reach and impact that continues to affect far more children than we realize today, and it is one we ought to remember and contemplate during our liturgical—and secular—holiday season.

In 1873, Mary Mapes Dodge—known for writing Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865)—began editing a children’s magazine called St. Nicholas. Cultural historians of the past and present have referred to St. Nicholas Magazine as “the best-remembered and best-loved American children’s magazine”[1] and quite simply “the best of all children’s magazines.”[2] The magazine’s breadth was indeed massive: soon after its inception, the juvenile periodical became a household name in the United States and Europe, selling seventy thousand copies per month for over fifty years.[3] Dodge edited the magazine until she died in 1905, and the magazine continued a strong publication run until 1940. A mere sampling of its authors includes Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, E. B. White, Joel Chandler Harris, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Celebrity illustrators that you may recognize include Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Rackham, and Norman Rockwell. These, like the author list, are only a few of the prestigious artists who exhibited their talents in the publication.

While the magazine’s name may be lost on the general masses today, Dodge’s vision for the magazine—and how she viewed art created for children—can give us insight into how we might aspire to treat children today as participants in religion and culture. With St. Nicholas as her guide, Dodge refused to treat children as cultural bystanders; instead, she viewed them as actors in their faith, life, and moral experiences. In an editorial about the vision for her upcoming juvenile magazine in the adult magazine Scribner’s, she enticed adult readers with the promise that her upcoming periodical would not moralize children to boredom nor pander to them with nonsensical drivel. Dodge explains:

We come to the conviction that the perfect magazine for children lies folded at the heart of the ideal best magazine for grownups. Yet the coming periodical which is to make the heart of baby-American glad must not be the chip of the old . . . block, but an outgrowth from the old-young . . . heart. Therefore, look to it that it be strong, warm, beautiful, and true. Let the little magazine-readers find what they look for and be able to pick up what they find. Boulders will not go into tiny baskets.[4]

Dodge, at the outset, argues that aesthetic culture for children ought to hold fast to the Catholic transcendentals—to the good, true, and beautiful (or, to borrow her words, “the strong, warm, beautiful, and true”). She believes that “grownups” also seek truth in their culture but can forget that, when writing for children, young people’s “hearts” are different in that they are younger and therefore in a different stage of formation. Young readers should not be given “boulders”—huge truth concepts they cannot carry yet in one heavy load—nor should they be given so much moralizing that their hearts cannot seek or find truth on their own. Stated simply, adults ought not drown out children’s access to divine revelation.

Children do not want to be bored by sermonizing any more than adults do, Dodge surmises, and their hearts will not be transformed in this manner. Dodge suggests children should be allowed to “pick up what they find” from art that is curated especially for them. In her magazine, children will discover fiction, poetry, puzzles, songs, and illustrations chosen for their age, ability, and interest levels. Although not a Catholic herself, Mapes worried about the ways in which children were being treated in a culture that consistently gave them less credit than they deserved as thinking humans who ought to be able to access the divine through aestheticism. In essence, she worried about children’s human dignity.

Here is what she says of the illustrations she planned to include for children in St. Nicholas Magazine:

A child’s periodical must be pictorially illustrated, of course, and the pictures must have the greatest variety consistent with simplicity, beauty, and unity. They should be heartily conceived and well executed; and they must be suggestive, attractive, and epigrammatic. If it be only the picture of a cat, it must be so like a cat that it will do its own purring, and not sit, a dead, stuffed thing, requiring the editor to purr for it.

Dodge states outright that children deserve aesthetic pleasure, that they deserve to have their innate wonder piqued further. She describes her magazine as a “pleasure-ground” where children can find one beautiful object after another to marvel and wonder at. These objects should not be mindless candy; they should be aesthetically pleasing to the child’s soul. When she speaks of “beauty” above, after all, note that she marries that concept with “unity.” She believes children ought to be given pictures that remind them of wholeness and truth—of God.

Catholics who love children’s literature may be reminded here of C.S. Lewis’s famous 1952 speech, “On Three Ways for Writing for Children,” given at the British Library Association in which he—eighty years later—echoes Dodge’s ideas about art for children, claiming that in stories for children authors and illustrators should

let the pictures tell you their own moral. . . . The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized. . . . [T]he worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm: we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect.[5]

Like Dodge, Lewis believes children are smart enough to separate truth from fiction, that they ought to be respected and given literature and art that meet them where they are—yet still have the standards of aesthetic form that draw them to the divine. To reiterate, like adults, children ought to be given art of the highest sort, catered to them, that should inspire them to a higher purpose.

One might consider today’s picture books as a case in point for Dodge’s claims—and later Lewis’s—for creating art for children. As readers, we know that when we are reading Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 iconic Goodnight Moon there is a “simplicity, beauty, and unity” in Clement Hurd’s illustrations, which complement the words on the page to create a holistic world in that book for the child reader. The muted blues, greens, reds, and yellows foster a unity in the nighttime scenes that, as Dodge might say, is “pleasure-filled” because the time spent in composing the atmosphere is “heartily conceived and well-executed.” Likewise, when we read Laura Numeroff’s 1985 If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, its “epigrammatic” lines are memorable, as is that mouse in overalls created by its illustrator, Felicia Bond. Books like these beget more wonder because they inspire children through the unity of their words and their artwork. Working together, they create an ideal, composite experience for young readers and adults alike.

Imagine now, a children’s book with too many words on the page and pictures that look screen-printed haphazardly. We have plenty of these books scattered about our house. Some of them, I admit, are didactic and religious in nature. I do not think my children read those in their spare time, and we do not pick them up much for family reading time either. Dodge would argue that those are “dead, stuffed things,” like the cat she speaks of in her explanation of what makes children’s illustrations fail to fulfill. Children deserve sacred, inspirational art, as adults do.

And this brings us to the description of St. Nicholas that Dodge creates at the beginning of her magazine—certainly the saint she describes is no “dead, stuffed thing.” She writes her editorial envisioning the ideal children’s magazine in July: in November of that same year, St. Nicholas Magazine is released. The cover exhibits a beautiful red and gold signature design, and flowers shaped like trumpets to announce the magazine’s arrival. Importantly, St. Nicholas is the name she chose for her magazine—not her publication company. Now, I do concede that some might believe her rendering of St. Nicholas to be not far afield from Moore’s. After all, in her letter to children describing what the magazine is, she calls St. Nicholas the “jolliest of old dears,” which has a certain elfish ring to it. Moreover, the way she refers to her magazine’s child readers when she addresses them for the first time is absolutely buoyant, reminiscent of Moore’s happy poem perhaps: “Dear Girl and Boy—no there are more! Here they come! There they come! Near by, far off, everywhere, we can see them,—coming by dozens, hundreds, thousands, troops upon troops, and all pressing closer and closer.” Dodge is a children’s writer of the highest degree, a community builder—and a marketer. Just as important, she is also a researcher, one whose Hans Brinker, subtitled The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, was mistaken many times as being written by a native of the Netherlands—even by those from the country itself. At the time when she wrote her novel, though, Dodge had never set foot outside the United States. I call your attention to the fact, then, that after hailing those “troops and troops of children” to pay heed to this new magazine, she credits “dear St. Nicholas,” for “mak[ing] us friends in a moment!” We should not take that she has chosen St. Nicholas for her masthead as her way to reach children’s hearts and minds lightly.

In her rendering of him, St. Nicholas is not simply a jolly elf who gives presents. Indeed, she never mentions presents directly in the magazine’s introduction. She does note, though, that the saint “is fair and square” and “comes when he says he will.” And: she says that he worries about “poverty” and “trouble,” shutting him out from some children’s lives, obscuring the idea here of whether he visits children in a physical or spiritual way—or perhaps both. While presents are not mentioned, what she does mention is that St. Nicholas has “attended” many “heart-warmings.” St. Nicholas always comes, she writes, at a “holy time,” never separating the religious connotation from her magazine’s patron. Then, significantly, she ends this first introduction to the most influential magazine for children ever created saying that, together, she and her child readers are entering into “prayer.”[6] Dodge begins St. Nicholas buoyantly, and prayerfully.

This turn toward prayer, in a magazine dedicated to children and named after the patron saint of children, cannot be dismissed, especially perhaps when the magazine was ultimately so successful. Ah, how many children’s books are discarded that feel didactic and heavy-handed! Ah, how many children’s books are discarded that are nothing but marketing tools or mindless drivel! I inquire, too: how many saints are depicted as glum? How much time is spent inviting children into an illustrated world of beauty, where their interests and morality are simultaneously piqued, not separated out into different categories, but placed together, in a type of complexity that resembles the lives they live? How often is a playful time, with a saint, called prayer? How often are play, reading, art, and joy linked with prayer at all today? In her magazine, Dodge invites children to play and to pray.

Adults have long read saintly materials catered toward them, chock full of prayers invoked at the beginning in ways that make sense to their formation. We need only to reference Augustine’s famous first lines of The Confessions, which begin, like the St. Nicholas Magazine, with prayer: “Thou awakes us to delight in Thy praise for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” In The Confessions, Augustine recounts his struggles regarding his earthly and spiritual desires—even writing about the special difficulty of being a child. As we grow, we ought to look to God for rest—for peace—because we are made to praise God and are apt to do anything but, Augustine relates. With children’s writing, we tend to give young readers much less room for trouble—for the “anything but,” for restlessness, for being children.

Dodge invokes prayer in much the same way that Augustine does: like him, she approaches her readers as restless and then brings them into prayer; we will invite our imaginations, and we will suss out truth together, her magazine seems to say to its child audiences in each and every edition. Dodge composed and published the hymn—“Can a little child like me thank the father fittingly?”—which is still sung today. The answer in this hymn is of course the same as Augustine’s answer, yes! Children can praise God, but in their own ways and at their own formational levels. Some may remember singing this hymn with their children during Thanksgiving this year. Today, it is published in 108 hymnals; it also has multiple YouTube singalongs if one is interested in searching it and even starting a new tradition. If you do not remember this encounter with Mary Mapes Dodge, and do not want to look up this song, you likely still will not be able to miss her influence on American culture today. She is also the author of America’s most famous Christmas fable, “The Gingerbread Man,” printed in an 1875 edition of St. Nicholas Magazine. My son, who I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, loves running around this time of year and saying that it is impossible to catch him. I remember my father did as well. Dodge’s influence on children, on our lives as consumers of art, has been passed down from generation to generation. She remains part of our cultural imaginations, our play, and our religious practices.

Literary scholar Angela Sorby makes the case that “Dodge clearly realized [that] a major function of . . . magazines was the transposition of peer culture from the face-to-face village or street-corner to the abstract public sphere of a national, or even international, mass culture of the child.”[7] Dodge forged a transatlantic children’s culture between the United States and Europe where, for the first time, they had a common language beyond the friend or family member sitting next to them. Children responded to Dodge, perhaps because she realized they would respond to St. Nicholas as well, not simply as a secular figure but also as a holy one. Her mixture of religion with cultural traditions created peer groups of children who were linked in aesthetic and religious ways—and purposefully so; they were linked with her belief that children could find the truth when it was offered to them in a pleasing format. When she died, her obituary described her as “the recognized leader in juvenile literature for a third of the century” and “beloved by the world.” Children and parents alike sent mounds of letters telling her they loved her almost as much as they did St. Nicholas Magazine.

On St. Nicholas’s feast day this year, my son in the morning anxiously awaited his treats, though he never ate the orange that was in his shoe. When he arrived home from school later in the day, he asked if we would light a candle in honor of St. Nicholas, and we prayed together as a family. This is a practice we would not have started without his leadership. “I’m glad St. Nicholas looks out for us, for the kids,” he said. In this time, he did not mention presents or chocolate. I will not seep into sentimentality or pretend with you that this was a long moment that it was not. But it was a moment when my son, an eight-year-old, led our family to venerate a saint. Advent is a time of invitation, of awaiting the birth of a child into our homes. The secular is always going to invite our children to play, and I think we ought to trust our children—as Mary Mapes Dodge did—to discern when playtime and holiness can connect and create beauty in our homes, even if it appears only in small moments. We ought to invite art of the highest kind to inspire our children and not worry so much if every once in a while we spot some gingerbread men on the periphery. We catch God where we can with children, and we ought to let Him catch them, too.

[1] R. Gordon Kelly, Mother Was a Lady: Self and Society in Selected American Children’s Periodicals, 1865–1890 (Westport, Conn., 1974), 23.

[2] Susan Gannon, “Introduction: What Was St. Nicholas Magazine?” in St. Nicholas and Mary Mapes Dodge: The Legacy of a Children’s Magazine Editor, 1873–1905 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers), 1.

[3] Allison Speicher, “Pretty Little Schoolma’ams: Age Ambiguity in Nineteenth-Century School Fiction,” Children’s Literature Association Conference, 29 June 2018, Sheraton Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, TX., 1.

[4] Mary Mapes Dodge, “Children’s Magazines,” in Scribner’s Monthly, July 1873, 352–54.

[5] C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in On Stories And Other Essays on Literature (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1982), 63–65.

[6] Mary Mapes Dodge, “Letter to Children,” in St. Nicholas’s Magazine, November 1873, no. 1. vol. 1, 1.

[7] Angela Sorby, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas: The Poetics of Peer Culture, 1872–1900.” American Studies, vol. 39, no. 1 (1998): 61.