‘Twas just weeks before Christmas when Percy Ogden discovered a centuries-old version of A Visit from St. Nicholas.
The handmade book, featuring the famous verses by Clement C. Moore, is penned in ornate Gothic script and colourfully illustrated by his daughter Mary as a special Christmas present for her husband John Doughty Ogden in 1885.
The copy was found in a box in the historic Ogden home in Lac La Hache, accompanied by a LIFE magazine article describing the history of the poem, later renamed The Night Before Christmas.
Pages of Mary’s book, which LIFE called this “rare edition of The Night Before Christmas,” were included in the article.
“I find these little things all throughout the house,” Percy said.
It wasn’t a surprise to discover this latest “gem,” Percy said, but he was intrigued to learn of the family connection between Mary’s husband, John Doughty Ogden and Peter Ogden, the local fur trader and Percy’s great-great-grandfather.
According to ancestry records dug up by Percy’s cousin Michelle, the two men were second cousins, descended from Judge David Ogden – their great-great-grandfather.
Percy suspects the family tree branched out during the American War of Independence when David’s two sons – Abraham and Isaac – settled in the U.S. and Canada respectively. Isaac is the father of Peter Skene Ogden, Percy’s great-great-great-grandfather.
The pages of Mary’s book are decorated with scenes of the old house in the Chelsea section of New York where Mary and her eight siblings grew up. The Ogden crest is on the back of the book.
“When I first found this, I thought ‘Ogden, yeah we’re probably related,’ but I didn’t know how and I didn’t put any thought into the dates,” Percy said. “I thought that this was probably previous to (Peter Skene Ogden) but it’s not. Peter Skene Ogden started in the fur trade in 1818 but this poem was written about this time.”
According to the LIFE article, Moore – known at the time as an “erudite professor of Greek and Oriental literature” – was driving home in a sleigh one December evening in 1822 when he dashed off his “set of jingling verses” as a gift for his children.
On Christmas Eve, he recited his poem, then called A Visit from St. Nicholas, for his children, who were so delighted they told their friends, the article states. One friend sent it the following year to a newspaper in Troy, N.Y. where it was published anonymously.
“Instantly the paper was besieged with requests for the name of the author, and newspapers all over the U.S. and Europe began to copy it,” according to the article.
The poem’s name was later changed to The Night Before Christmas.
Percy said he didn’t read The Night Before Christmas often to his son Peter, but found out later that it had been one of his daughter-in-law’s favourites.
“They had a Christmas tradition where her father would take her on his knee Christmas Eve and read this story all the time” Percy said. “I had no idea we’d be related to the author of the poem.”
Percy credits his grandmother for keeping a concise historical record of their family’s ancestry. He and his wife Gale are caretakers of the old home, which contains stored boxes from various family members who had previously lived there.
“It’s just crazy, living here in this house and what you find,” Percy said. “It’s quite interesting because there are lots of little knickknacks and things you find and the story behind it.”