The Night Before Christmas
(A Visit From St. Nicholas)
by Clement Clarke Moore
'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."
Truth be told, the nineteenth-century author who bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded St. Nicholas ("His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!") was himself a dour, straitlaced academician. As a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C. Moore's most notable work prior to "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was a two-volume tome entitled A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.
Fortunately for us, the man had children.
Legend has it that Moore composed "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for his family on Christmas Eve of 1822, during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village. He supposedly drew inspiration for the elfin, pot-bellied St. Nick in his poem from the roly-poly Dutchman who drove his sleigh that day. But from what we know of Clement Moore, it's much more likely to suppose that he drew his imagery from literary sources, most notably Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History (1809) and a Christmas poem published in 1821 called "The Children's Friend." Irving's History, a satire on the transplanted customs of New York's Dutch population, contained several references to the legendary Santa Claus (Sinter Klass in Dutch), a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes. It was a character we would scarcely recognize as the Santa Claus we know today, apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
"The Children's Friend," a poem for young people, harkened from the same tradition but also added some new elements to the "Santeclaus" myth: the first known references to a sleigh and reindeer. The poem begins:
According to Duncan Emrich in Folklore on the American Land (Little, Brown: 1972), when Moore sat down to compose a Christmas poem for his own children, he took inspiration from the details he had read in these works - and not just those pertaining St. Nicholas himself. Emrich observes:
Still, it seems reasonable to suppose that Moore's most profound inspiration came not from his readings but from a keen appreciation of his audience. He wasn't writing for publication, but to delight his own six children. To that end, he transformed the legendary figure of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, into Santa Claus, a fairy tale character for children. It was perhaps Moore's greatest contribution to the tradition, and at least partially explains Santa Claus' overwhelming popularity in American culture ever since.
Moore, stodgy creature of academe that he was, refused to have the poem published despite its enthusiastic reception by everyone who read it. Evidently his argument that it was beneath his dignity fell on deaf ears, because the following Christmas "A Visit from St. Nicholas" found its way into the mass media after all when a family member cunningly submitted it to an out-of-town newspaper. The poem was an "overnight sensation," as we would say today, but Moore was not to acknowledge authorship of it until fifteen years later, when he reluctantly included it in a volume of collected works. He called the poem "a mere trifle." The irony of this, as Duncan Emrich points out, is that for all his protestations, Professor Clement Clarke Moore is now remembered for little else at all.