Apparently, Santa is small

You are probably familiar with the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore that begins “Twas the night before Christmas”. We have at least two copies of it in book-form in our house (with James Marshall and Corinne Malvern as illustrators), and it’s a book that Harriet has been frequently asking to have read recently.

It’s justly well-known, as it, as much as any other source, is responsible for the modern-day conception of Santa Claus / Father Christmas / St Nicholas. According to Wikipedia’s pages on Moore’s poem and Santa, the 1823 poem (called “A Visit from St Nicholas”) can be credited with establishing:

  • Santa’s physical attributes,
  • arriving on Christmas Eve,
  • traveling via a reindeer-drawn sleigh,
  • the names of the reindeer,
  • entering via the chimney, and
  • bringing toys to children!

So, after the n-th reading of it, I was surprised to realise that there was something I’d missed. Although all the illustrations that accompanied the poem depicted St Nick as normal human-size (as well as every illustration I’ve ever seen of Santa), the poem clearly casts him as a midget. Not only is Father Christmas pint-sized, but so are all of the reindeer.

Here are the relevant lines from the poem:

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof

He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf

Yes, that’s right – Santa is a tiny elf who travels in a miniature sleigh. Hence why the reindeer can land on the roof of a house and why he can fit down a chimney (although, some physicists have speculated at other ways Santa might fit down a chimney).

The part of the Santa Claus cultural tradition that states that he is a large, portly man comes not from Moore’s poem, but from elsewhere, e.g. soft-drink advertising campaigns, or Thomas Nast’s illustrations. It is the combination of this large Santa with Moore’s slim-chimney-fitting Santa that has created a problem, i.e. that we need to explain how Father Christmas gets down the chimney.

So, now every time I read the story for Harriet, I’m going to have dissonance in my head between the words and the pictures, and will dread answering how Santa gets into the house in a way that gels with the poem as well as the more “normal” view of him. Although it was very influential, it’s a pity that the poem wasn’t also influential in the matter of St Nick’s size.

One last way that the poem has been influential is in the number of alternative re-tellings that it has generated. There is a good collection of them here. I like the one about assembling presents – this is also something (given two children under three) that I dread will happen.

Perhaps there was no Tulip bubble

I’ve been trying to understand what a financial bubble really means, and in the course of this, came across some interesting information: apparently the great Dutch Tulip bubble of the 1630s wasn’t a bubble after all. Although I am wary to merely summarise stuff that is written better elsewhere, I thought this was a good one to share.


Tulips came to the Netherlands from Turkey in the 1500s, and became a popular status symbol. Multicoloured varieties were produced due to the effects of a plant-specific virus, and as a result (skipping the details), it would take at least seven years after planting the bulb of a spectacular tulip to produce new tulips from it. Understandably, possessing a spectacular tulip bulb gave you an advantage for quite a period of time before others could gain a similar bulb.

Due to rising prices, speculators entered the tulip market in 1634, and a more formal futures market in bulbs arose in 1636. By some accounts, offers for single bulbs reached insane levels, e.g. 49,000 m^2 of land for a bulb. In February 1637, the price of tulips crashed. For the next few centuries, “tulip mania” is used as a textbook example of crazy market behaviour with a boom and bust.

Why not a bubble?

If a bubble is where markets are caught up in “irrational exuberance”, then it appears that this market continued to be rational. And if a bubble is where a market eventually “pops” and the resulting crash causes widespread losses, then it appears that losses were not significant. Of course, it is hard to know for sure, since all of this happened almost four centuries ago, but there is apparently some evidence that:

  • In February 1637, the futures contracts all became options contracts, i.e. the purchaser of a contract to buy bulbs no longer had the obligation to purchase or take delivery of the bulbs if it looked like they would make a loss.
  • This change was known to be coming from several months beforehand, encouraging purchasers of contracts to agree to high bulb prices with minimal risk. Taking this perspective, the contracts were rationally priced.
  • Actual tulip prices (as opposed to the price of these futures contracts) remained at ordinary levels.
  • The Dutch authorities halted the trade in the contracts, and later decreed them unenforceable gambling debts. So, given that no tulips changed hands that winter (as the tulips would’ve all been in the ground) and the contracts were unenforceable, it’s not clear that there were any significant losses made.
  • Most of the support for claims of a tulip bubble come from some anti-speculation propaganda published soon afterwards.

Perhaps, then, there was no Tulip bubble. I guess all those textbooks need updating.