A Visit from St. Nicholas
A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly know today as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore was written in 1822 and published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.
This simple 14-stanza composition is largely responsible for the concept of Santa Claus as visualized in thousands of drawings from the mid-nineteenth century to today. From this one poem pop culture has indelibly established Santa’s physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and the tradition of bringing toys to children. Moore’s poem took elements of legend and previous writings, such as those of Washington Irving, to create what is considered the first modern American story about Santa Claus.
According to legend, the poem was written by Moore for his family during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicolas was a local Dutch handyman and the historical 4th-century saint who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Moore’s conception of Saint Nicolas was also borrowed from his friend Washington Irving’s work A History of New York, but Moore portrayed his “jolly old elf” as arriving Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day to avoid any religious connotations. Moore is also the first to characterize Saint Nicholas as riding in a sleigh.
Our cultural visions of Santa derive from this poem. The image was further cemented by artist like Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell, and Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola ads. These famous artists, as well as many others, drew their versions of Santa Claus using the descriptions in Moore’s poem. Naturally there were variations, however the general depictions were so similar as to form a standard “Santa Claus” characterization in the USA.
The poem has remained continuously in print, placed into song, and adapted to film.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer!
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”