Neil Gaiman’s Poem, ‘Nicholas Was…’

English author Neil Gaiman. Photo courtesy of Masterclass.

I love me some dark interpretations of Christmas. Yes, that’s the jolly fellow I am around the holidays. In all seriousness, I do love the sentimentality and good vibes the Christmas season brings, but naturally, I also gravitate toward the dark and sinister as well. That’s why I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas-themed horror films in the last week or so. That inversion of expectations and taking something good and making it evil merely by putting it in a different context fascinates me. In fact, you could do that with a lot of our fairy tales and traditions.

And I can’t think of a darker interpretation of Christmas and jolly old Saint Nicholas than Neil Gaiman’s poem from 1989 about him, “Nicholas was…” If you’re not familiar with Gaiman’s work, he’s an English author who dabbles in quite a bit of everything from short fiction to novels to comic books and graphic novels to nonfiction and film. He’s probably best known for the graphic novel series The Sandman and the novel American Gods? At least, that’s how I know of him. In other words, he tends to dabble in the dark and fantastical, so this poem isn’t exactly a departure.

For the poem, he worked with his Sandman artist David McKean. There’s even been a few animated adaptations of the poem from 39 Degrees North studio and others:

Here is the poem in full and here is an excerpt:

Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen into time.

Eek.

The opening line of the poem tells you this is going to be a darker, twisted version, “Nicholas was older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.” He wanted to die! Poor, Saint Nicholas. In other words, he seems to basically be at the mercy of the elves we all thought are at his command by the popular telling of Santa Claus.

And the image of forcing him into the Endless Night, so that going from house-to-house (during winter, no less!) is brutal, and he’s an old man at that. I do wonder what it means by invisible gifts. Per the mythology, it would make sense that the children are “frozen in time” in order for Santa Claus to be able to logistically hit every house in the world, but why are the gifts invisible? Wait … is he not actually leaving gifts? It’s just a going-through-the-motions thing the elves make him do? That is what makes it so brutal? It would be one thing if he was at least delivering gifts, but they’re invisible?! Am I reading that right? Brutal indeed.

Comparing him to long-suffering figures like Sisyphus (rolling the boulder up the hill) and others really hammers home that he’s ensconced in an endless cycle of the Endless Night. My ears always perk up for a Sisyphean reference.

As I said, one of my favorite things in art is taking something we associate with jolly, good cheer and now making it sinister and dreadful. So in this short poem, we’ve established that Nicholas wants to die and is enslaved to the elves and their “incomprehensible rituals,” so that the end is a gut-punch: Ho. Ho. Ho. Each ho feels like a blow!

What do you make of this poem?

The sack is filled with invisible things, right?!

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