For those of you who celebrate Christmas, a certain poem was probably part of your upbringing, along with Frosty and Rudolph and all that sort of thing. You know the one I mean. You heard it, I heard it, we all heard it a zillion times in school, at home, on TV. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…”
But although I heard the words enough times that they embedded themselves in my memory, I really had only a hazy idea of what it all meant. I mean, I got the general drift of Santa bringing the good stuff, but what, exactly, were sugarplums? Why were people wearing caps and kerchiefs to bed, and how do you throw open a sash?
And what the heck were coursers more rapid than eagles?
But no part of the poem baffled me more than these immortal lines: “He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.”
The down of a thistle?
Many thanks to Wells Horton for this chance to study a thistle up close. http://wells-horton.smugmug.com/
Thistles, prickly members of the Composite family, are widespread across the globe. When thistles go to seed, they go to lots of seed–each flower head can produce dozens. And each seed is attached to what’s called a pappus, a feathery appendage that aids in seed dispersal by catching the wind.
If you ever come across a thistle with the downy white pappi all clustered together, pull off a pinch, avoiding prickles. The thistle’s seed parachutes are soft, warm, lighter than feathers. And when you let the tuft of thistledown free on the breeze, it drifts as silent and weightless as smoke. As graceful and swift as, well, as eight tiny reindeer.
Now for those of you who are more poetically than botanically minded, you may ask, why did Clement Clarke Moore have to use the awkward phrase “down of a thistle”—why not just say thistledown? You may be thinking that it’s because after all, this is a poem, right, and whistle rhymes with thistle, but nothing rhymes with thistledown.
Well, you’d be wrong.
One of those amazing websites that define every word in the English language also lists rhyming words. And there are hundreds of ways to rhyme with thistledown. Who knew? So Clement had a wealth of options at his disposal. If only he’d had access to Google. Just imagine where the poem could have gone if he’d used a proper noun, or trickledown, or gone to Chinatown or Allentown with a hand-me-down. The reindeer could have won the Triple Crown, or been colored Vandyke brown or flown upside down, or St. Nick could have worn a broken-down dressing gown made of eiderdown…
…okay, okay, simmer down…