Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, Catholic Exchange <i>, and <i>Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Most everyone has heard or read Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. It’s a beautiful, tranquil winter scene. But I say it’s much more although the poet didn’t realize it himself. It’s about St. Nicholas and Christmas.
Let’s look at the poem first, then go line by line.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The first stanza tells us we’re dealing with a solitary traveler. That’s made clearer as we read on. This traveler is not quite familiar with who might own what piece of land in the woods, but certainly knows the person’s house in the village. That’s his expertise, so to say. Besides, he’s the only one out and about this time of the evening. And we get to see it’s a lovely winter scene, one beautiful enough to give the traveler pause to stop, admire and enjoy it.
Then in the second stanza, we learn more about the traveler from his horse. It’s a “little horse.” In the time people were using horses and sleighs or carts or carriages, the horse would not necessarily be little, although in some cases it might be.
But there are three main possibilities considering it’s a dark evening away from town. The mailman— no, because even with Christmas rush, he would not be out delivering at night. The doctor — no, because a night call meant an emergency with no time to stop to admire the snow and woods. The milkman — no, wrong time of day, although the horse would be puzzled since it was only used to stopping at houses. But a milk horse would not be little.
The little horse thinks it’s strange because he and his “boss” are used to stopping at houses, not in the woods, you see. Especially since this is the “darkest evening of the year.” So we can pinpoint the date because the darkest evening of the year is the night before the Winter Solstice, which can fall on Dec. 20 to 23, depending on various factors. In 1922 when the poem was written, it was Dec. 22. Close to Christmas Eve. Sort of a variation on a slant rhyme in poetry, where something is close, but not quite.
In stanza three, the “little horse” is even “asking” if this is a mistake by shaking the harness bells that are part of his outfit. Could this four-footed animal who pulls a sleigh be a poetic synecdoche, “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.” Maybe there really are seven more of these little horses. Although horses and deer are not of the same family, also keep in mind the poetic device called metonymy, “the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant.” So as not to give away the whole guessing game? Metonymy might explain the darkest evening of thy hear use too.
The fourth stanza helps to strengthen the identification. The traveler might want to linger, taking in the beautiful, serene scene, so close to Christmas. But then comes the key words “I have promises to keep.” It’s more than one promise. Many promises. Who knows how many? Which are not to be fulfilled in the snowy winter woods but certainly at places he and his little horse know — houses. And it’s so important he repeats it.
And who other than Santa Clause would have “miles to go” before sleeping, which must be many because he repeats it again. Something no traveler at that time of year in those days would be doing on such a snowy night. Other than Santa Claus. Who is really St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas’s anonymous gift-giving originated in his hometown of Patara in Turkey. According to ancient tradition, to deliver a destitute family of a widower father and his three daughters out of dire poverty, the young Nicholas secretly threw three bags of gold coins through their window on three consecutive nights. Here was St. Nicholas during the "darkest evenings of the year" bringing the light of hope and salvation through the surprise gifts he left for the family to see when they awakened.
His anonymous nocturnal gift-giving has continued in many countries, including being translated into Santa’s visits. So maybe he takes a minute rest to watch the snowy Christmas scene on his rounds now and again.