Today’s anniversary of the publication of “The Night Before Christmas” 198 years ago is not lost on author B.W. Van Alstyne, who fervently wanted his poem “An Urban Account of a Visit From Santa Claus” published in a newspaper on Dec. 23.
The Finger Lakes Times was happy to oblige.
Van Alstyne, 56, wrote his poem last December, inspired by the story of the poem’s disputed authorship and after watching the documentary “Believe: The True Story of the Real Bearded Santas.” Making an appearance in that film was Dee Sinclair of Georgia, a Black Santa whose mission has become to provide Black children with Santa experiences they can relate to and restore the dignity of the Black Santa stereotype.
The two men chatted and Van Alstyne, who had previously penned several children’s books, let the creative process take over.
“This wonderful, beautiful poem came to me all it once,” he said from his home in Bryan, Texas, adding its original version took just 15 minutes to write. “(I was) so jizzed up; I really wanted to do something to help these Santa Clauses who happen to be Black.”
For Black children too.
Van Alstyne’s line in the poem when the 11-year-old narrator says “I thought I’d gone out of mind” after seeing “a little old man with a fluffy, white beard, and a little brown face most happy and kind” speaks to how Black children don’t expect Santa Claus to look like them. It doesn’t have to be that way, said Van Alstyne — who hopes in some small way his poem will help children and parents experience that.
Van Alstyne was born in Clifton Springs but moved to Boston as a toddler (his mother, Sharon Reynolds Van Alstyne, still lives there). However, he still has family in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region, including his father, Bruce Dunham, and his stepfather, William VanAlstyne, both of Geneva — and he continued to visit the area while growing up.
As a child, Van Alstyne recalls meeting a Black Santa Claus in Roxbury, close to his family’s Boston home.
“That was marvelous for us,” he said.
For his poem, Van Alstyne enlisted Elena Albanese of Italy to provide the illustrations. Although an illustrated postcard is currently for sale online at Pixie Pan Books, Van Alstyne’s publishing arm, the duo is working toward a picture book for publication in time for Christmas 2022. But, if it’s not ready, a 2023 publication date would be fitting, as that year would be the 200th anniversary of the original “A Visit From St. Nicholas” publication in the Troy Sentinel, he noted.
The poem, first published anonymously, later became known as “The Night Before Christmas” because of its first line. Its authorship was eventually attributed to New York City native Clement C. Moore, but family members of Henry Livingston Jr. of Poughkeepsie have claimed he was the true author.
Regardless of who actually wrote the original, Van Alstyne enjoys the connection that he, like Livingston, was born in Upstate New York and is having his Christmas poem published in a newspaper on Dec. 23 — just as the original was almost 200 years ago.
“This is just a magical thing,” he said. “I’m excited for it.”