A Visit from St. Nicholas
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' 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
"A Visit from St. Nicholas", more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from its first line, is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837. Some commentators now believe the poem was written by Henry Livingston, Jr..
The poem has been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American" and is largely responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today. It has had a massive impact on the history of Christmas gift-giving. Before the poem gained wide popularity, American ideas had varied considerably about Saint Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" eventually was set to music and has been recorded by many artists.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Meter
- 3 Literary history
- 4 Original copies
- 5 Authorship controversy
- 6 In popular culture
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
On Christmas Eve night, while his wife and children sleep, a father awakens to noises outside his house. Looking out the window, he sees Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) in an air-borne sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. After landing his sleigh on the roof, the saint enters the house through the chimney, carrying a sack of toys with him. The father watches Santa filling the children's Christmas stockings hanging by the fire, and laughs to himself. They share a conspiratorial moment before Santa bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, Santa wishes everyone a "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."
The poem's meter is anapestic tetrameter (four feet of unstressed-unstressed-stressed). The anapest is the same foot used to construct limericks, and the common metrical modifications that can be observed in the limerick form also can be observed in Moore's poem. For example, while the first two lines each use full anapests, lines 3 and 4 each drop the first unstressed syllable. Likewise, lines 9 and 10 drop the first unstressed syllable; they also add an extra unstressed syllable to the end.
According to legend, "A Visit" was composed by Clement Clarke Moore on a snowy winter's day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas. Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today while borrowing other aspects, such as the use of reindeer. The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on 23 December 1823, having been sent there by a friend of Moore, and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. It was first attributed in print to Moore in 1837. Moore himself acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece.
Moore's conception of Saint Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving (see below), but Moore portrayed his "jolly old elf" as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year's Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as the result of "Catholic ignorance and deception" and still had reservations. By having Saint Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore "deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations." As a result, "New Yorkers embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives."
In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, editor Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen" that he adopted, rather than the earlier Dutch version from 1823 "Dunder and Blixem." Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though the German word for thunder is "Donner" and the words in modern Dutch would be "Donder en Bliksem."
Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities. For example, breast in "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" is frequently bowdlerized to crest; the archaic ere in "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight" is frequently replaced with as. Note that this change implies that Santa Claus made his exclamation during the moment that he disappeared from view, while the exclamation came before his disappearance in the original. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night" is frequently rendered with the traditional English locution "'Merry Christmas'" and with "goodnight" as a single word.
Four hand-written copies of the poem are known to exist and three are in museums, including the New-York Historical Society library. The fourth copy, written out and signed by Clement Clarke Moore as a gift to a friend in 1860, was sold by one private collector to another in December 2006. It was purchased for $280,000 by an unnamed "chief executive officer of a media company" who resides in New York City, according to Dallas, Texas-based Heritage Auctions which brokered the private sale.
Moore's connection with the poem has been questioned by Professor Donald Foster, who used textual content analysis and external evidence to argue that Moore could not have been the author. Foster believes that Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, should be considered the chief candidate for authorship, a view long espoused by the Livingston family. Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife. Foster's claim, however, has been countered by document dealer and historian Seth Kaller, who once owned one of Moore's original manuscripts of the poem. Kaller has offered a point-by-point rebuttal of both Foster's linguistic analysis and external findings, buttressed by the work of autograph expert James Lowe and Dr. Joe Nickell, author of Pen, Ink and Evidence.
Evidence in favor of Moore
Moore is credited by his friend Charles Fenno Hoffman as author in the 25 December 1837 Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier. Further, the Rev. David Butler, who allegedly showed the poem to Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley, was a relative of Moore's. A letter to Moore from the publisher states, "I understand from Mr. Holley that he received it from Mrs. Sackett, the wife of Mr. Daniel Sackett who was then a merchant in this city". Moore preferred to be known for his more scholarly works, but allowed the poem to be included in his anthology in 1844 at the request of his children. By that time, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Livingston family lore gives credit to their forebear rather than Moore, but there is no proof that Livingston himself ever claimed authorship, nor has any record ever been found of any printing of the poem with Livingston's name attached to it, despite more than 40 years of searches.
Evidence in favor of Livingston
Advocates for Livingston's authorship argue that Moore "tried at first to disavow" the poem. They also posit that Moore falsely claimed to have translated a book. Document dealer and historian Seth Kaller has challenged both claims. Kaller examined the book in question, A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, as well as many letters signed by Moore, and found that the "signature" was not penned by Moore, and thus provides no evidence that Moore made any plagiaristic claim. Kaller's findings were confirmed by autograph expert James Lowe, by Dr. Joe Nickell, the author of Pen, Ink & Evidence, and by others. According to Kaller, Moore's name was likely written on the book by a New-York Historical Society cataloger to indicate that it had been a gift from Moore to the Society.
The following points have been advanced in order to credit the poem to Major Henry Livingston, Jr.:
Livingston also wrote poetry primarily using an anapaestic metrical scheme, and it is claimed that some of the phraseology of A Visit is consistent with other poems by Livingston, and that Livingston's poetry is more optimistic than Moore's poetry published in his own name. But Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his Battle for Christmas that the poem could have been a social satire of the Victorianization of Christmas. Furthermore, Kaller claims that Foster cherry-picked only the poems that fit his thesis and that many of Moore's unpublished works have a tenor, phraseology, and meter similar to A Visit. Moore had even written a letter titled "From Saint Nicholas" that may have predated 1823.
Foster also contends that Moore hated tobacco and would, therefore, never have depicted Saint Nicholas with a pipe. However, Kaller notes, the source of evidence for Moore's supposed disapproval of tobacco is The Wine Drinker, another poem by him. In actuality, that verse contradicts such a claim. Moore's The Wine Drinker criticizes self-righteous, hypocritical advocates of temperance who secretly indulge in the substances which they publicly oppose, and supports the social use of tobacco in moderation (as well as wine, and even opium, which was more acceptable in his day than it is now).
Foster also asserts that Livingston's mother was Dutch, which accounts for the references to the Dutch Sinteklaes tradition and the use of the Dutch names "Dunder and Blixem". Against this claim, it is suggested by Kaller that Moore — a friend of writer Washington Irving and member of the same literary society — may have acquired some of his knowledge of New York Dutch traditions from Irving. Irving had written A History of New York in 1809 under the name of "Dietrich Knickerbocker." It includes several references to legends of Saint Nicholas, including the following that bears a close relationship to the poem:
And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream,—and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country; and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.— Washington Irving, A History of New York
MacDonald P. Jackson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has spent his entire academic career analyzing authorship attribution. He has written a book titled Who Wrote "the Night Before Christmas"?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question, published in 2016, in which he evaluates the opposing arguments and, for the first time, uses the author-attribution techniques of modern computational stylistics to examine the long-standing controversy. Jackson employs a range of tests and introduces a new one, statistical analysis of phonemes; he concludes that Livingston is the true author of the classic work.
In popular culture
- In the Garfield comic strips published during the week of 19–24 December 1983, the text of the poem was drawn above scenes of Garfield acting out the part of the narrator.
- From 13–25 December 2010, Over the Hedge covered the poem in a story arc, in which Verne tries to read it to Hammy and R.J., but keeps getting interrupted by their silly comments.
- The 11 December 1968 installation of Peanuts features Sally Brown attempting to recite the poem but inadvertently substituting the name of golfer Jack Nicklaus for "Saint Nicholas" ("The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hope that Jack Nicklaus soon would be there"), after which Charlie Brown is hesitant to correct her.
- Issue 40 of the DC Comics book Young Justice (2001) is a full-length parody of the poem. Unusual for a comic book, it features no panels or word balloons, only full-page illustrations accompanied by rhyming text. In the story, Santa sacrifices his life to save the world from a vengeful alien villain (though it's implied he'll be reborn next Christmas) and the teen heroes are stuck with the task of delivering all his gifts.
- Florence Cestac adapted it for Christmas Classics: Graphic Classics Volume Nineteen (2010).
- The short silent film The Night Before Christmas (1905) was the first production of the poem on film.
- In the 1933 Pooch the Pup cartoon Merry Dog (1933), Pooch recites the poem. When he mentions the line "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse," a rat finds it ludicrous, and therefore comes out to cause a little trouble.
- The Silly Symphonies cartoon short, The Night Before Christmas (1933),
- The Tom & Jerry cartoon short The Night Before Christmas (1941) opens with the poem's first lines, Jerry appearing from his hole on the word "mouse".
- In Die Hard (1988), Theo, the terrorist's tech specialist, is reporting on the assaulting SWAT team, beginning his 'narration' with the first lines of the poem.
- In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) reads the story to his extended family, but changes the narrative when he looks out the window and sees Cousin Eddie and Eddie's kidnapped hostage (Clark's boss) approaching the house. Instead of describing the "miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer", Clark describes the strange event taking place in his front yard.
- The title of Tim Burton's stop motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) parodies the poem's first line.
- The film The Santa Clause (1994) features Tim Allen's character reading the poem to his son, who was later awakened by reindeer on the roof, citing the phrase "arose such a clatter".
- A "Canonical List of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas Variations" contains nearly 1000 versions of the classic poem.
- In 2014, the Cottage and Eagle Studios reproduced in its original format, "The Night Before Christmas or a Visit of St. Nicholas", originally published in 1896 by the McLoughin Brothers of New York.
- Richard J. Davis' poetry adaptation, "The Night Before Christmas, 1914" (2013), is based upon the events of the Christmas Truce during World War I.
- Lance Corporal James M. Schmidt penned "Merry Christmas, My friend. A Marine's version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'" (1986).
- James Thurber's parody, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER", which originally appeared in the 24 December 1927, issue of The New Yorker.
- Trosclair's children's book, The Cajun Night Before Christmas (1973), offers a Cajun version of the classic tale, written in Cajun dialect and changing the scene to a Louisiana swamp and the saint's vehicle to a skiff pulled by alligators.
- In E.B. White's novel Stuart Little (1945), the title character's parents change the second line to "not even a louse", so as not to offend their son, who is a mouse.
Music and spoken word
- In 1953, Perry Como recorded a reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Its original release was on the Around the Christmas Tree LPM-3133.
- The Louis Armstrong Christmas CD Christmas Through the Years includes Louis reading the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas", better known as "The Night before Christmas". Recorded on 26 February 1971 in the den of his Corona, Queens home (now the Louis Armstrong House Museum), it is his last commercial recording, and the only one without his own music.
- The nu metal band Korn released a limited edition promotional 12-inch single in 1993, which featured two versions of their "A Visit from St. Nicholas" parody: "Christmas Song (Squeak by the FCC version)" and "Christmas Song (Blatant FCC Violation version)". The song was also planned to appear in Korn's debut album, but eventually was not included.
- The poem was set to music by Ken Darby and recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians in 1942 in an arrangement by Harry Simeone.
- Dave Seville recorded the poem for the 1963 album Christmas with The Chipmunks, Vol. 2.
- Anthony Daniels voiced the character of C-3PO on Meco Monardo's 1980 record Christmas in the Stars reciting "A Christmas Sighting ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)", in which he describes "S. Claus" coming to the droids' toy factory to pick up the year's presents to distribute.
- Actor Jack Palance narrates the poem on Laurie Z's 2001 recording, "Heart of the Holidays".
- Under the title "A Visit From St. Nick", the poem was set for Speaker & Orchestra by Robert Lichtenberger in 1987. It was commissioned for and premiered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Polochick, and repeated by the BSO on a number of subsequent Christmas holiday concerts. The work has also been performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, DC, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by the late Erich Kunzel, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elizabeth Schulze as well as other ensembles in the USA. Narrators have included then-mayor-of-Baltimore Kurt Schmoke, actor George Clooney and actress Pat Carroll.
- The poem was set to music by Aaron Dai in 2006 as "The Night Before Christmas". It has been performed by The Chelsea Symphony and noteworthy narrators such as Richard Kind, Ana Gasteyer, and David Hyde Pierce.
- A Pokémon version of this poem is included on the soundtrack CD album of Pokémon-themed Christmas songs entitled Pokémon Christmas Bash.
- In a 1939 recording included in the Nimbus Records collection Prima Voce: The Spirit of Christmas Past, actor Basil Rathbone reads the poem.
- The Bob Rivers comedy album Twisted Christmas features the track "A Visit from St. Nicholson", a narration of a Christmas visit from Jack Nicholson.
- In the Dave Van Ronk song "Yas Yas Yas", the poem is parodied in the verse "'Twas the night before Christmas, all was quiet in the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, when from the lawn there came a big crash. It was Father Christmas landing on his yas yas yas."
- A new rock/pop musical adaptation was released in 2011 by the artist JJ's Tunes & Tales on CD, Baby and iTunes. The single features the singing of Juliet Lyons, and a rock band that includes both electric guitars and mandolins. This musical adaptation has singing and music throughout, with no spoken or rap lyric sections.
- Since 1911 the Church of the Intercession in Manhattan has held a service that includes the reading of the poem followed by a procession to the tomb of Clement Clarke Moore at Trinity Cemetery the Sunday before Christmas.
- In "Mono Virus", a song by the Eraserheads from their 1996 album Fruitcake, the singer recites a parodied version of the poem before going into the song.
- Alma Deutscher had composed the song in 2014, under the name "The Night before Christmas".
Radio and television
- In A Muppet Family Christmas, the Sesame Street Muppets perform a play based on the poem, with Ernie narrating as the father (the main character) and Bert as Mamma (he lost a coin toss). The monsters appear as the reindeer, with the Two-Headed Monster as Santa (and Grover as the mouse who is not stirring, literally). The narration omits the line, "The children were nestled, all snug in their bed(s)/While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads."
- Episode 55 of Animaniacs featured a skit titled "The Day Before Christmas", in which Ralph the Guard is given the task of delivering Yakko, Wakko, and Dot's Christmas presents. The short is presented as a bedtime story told by Slappy Squirrel to her nephew Skippy and is narrated in the poetic form as the original story. This cartoon was adapted into comic book form in a special comic book published by DC Comics in October 1994.
- In the Barney and the Backyard Gang special, "Waiting for Santa", Barney reads the story to Michael and Amy, whom he has befriended, while Santa himself is in the living room of the house doing his usual work. He falls asleep just as he comes to "With a little old driver, so lively and quick/I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick." Santa whispers the last quotation to the camera after that.
- In the 1961 Bell Telephone Hour television program A Trip to Christmas, Ken Darby's musical version of the poem is performed off-screen by hostess Jane Wyatt and a chorus, and enacted onscreen by the Bil Baird Marionettes.
- The 23 December 2011 broadcast of the CBS Evening News ended with Scott Pelley saying: "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
- Some holiday airings of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had Charlie McCarthy trying to recite the poem from memory, resulting in such lines as: "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care/In hopes that the laundryman soon would be there". (A few times the line went: "In hopes that the room could stand some fresh air"), "He flies through the air with the greatest of ease/The jolly old elf in the red BVD's", and "Now, Dasher, Now, Dancer, and what do you know/Dasher and Dancer paid $220 to show!"
- The song with the poem as its basis, arranged by Harry Simeone and music by Ken Darby, was performed at holiday airings of Fibber McGee and Molly, usually introduced by Teeny, the neighbor girl, as their "Christmas Carol".
- At the beginning of Friends (TV series) episode 9, "The One with Christmas in Tulsa" (airdate 26 September 2002), Phoebe sings the last four lines of The Night Before Christmas, and Joey claims she wrote it. Another reference is seen is episode 10 of season 7, "The One with the Holiday Armadillo" (aired December 14, 2000), when Ross asks Chandler to leave and Chandler responds by saying "But I didn't get to shake my belly like a bowl full of jelly!"
- The special Power Rangers Megaforce episode, "Robo Knight Before Christmas", ends with Robo Knight saying: "Merry Christmas to all humans on Earth, and to all a good night!"
- The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show story arc "Topsy Turvy World" featured a plot by Boris Badenov to replace Santa Claus for nefarious purposes. The cliffhanger pun titles for one segment of the storyline were: "'The Fright Before Christmas', or 'A Visit From Saint Nicholouse'."
- The Shake It Up episode "Merry Merry it Up" ended with Flynn in the hot tub, saying "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good soak!"
- A hip-hop animated version of the poem was made as an hour-long animated special, The Night B4 Christmas.
- Bell Telephone Company sponsored a short film titled The Spirit of Christmas (circa 1950), featuring the Les and Mabel Beaton marionettes. Within a few years, it became a holiday perennial in many TV markets, especially in the Philadelphia area. In subsequent years it was licensed out as a 16mm film and shown in schools during the Christmas season.
- In the animated TV special by Rankin/Bass (1974), titled Twas the Night Before Christmas, the characters and portions of the plot are loosely based on the poem.
- In the Cabin Pressure radio show on BBC4 the intro of the episode Molokai references some verses of the poem.
- For Christmas 1985, the Internet Engineering Task Force circulated an RFC document that was actually a poem about the early days of the Internet, titled "Twas the Night Before Start-up".
- A version that originated on USENET in 1988 has circulated on Internet message boards and chain emails ever since. The entire poem is rephrased using more complicated and lesser known words. It is sometimes called "Technical Night Before Christmas" or subtitled "For readers in their 23rd year of schooling".
- "The Night Before Doom", which appears in the Official DOOM F.A.Q., is a poem centered on the computer game Doom (1993).
- "Are Santa's Reindeer Used for Propulsion or Navigation?" (2013), written by Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Phillip M. Cunio, deconstructs the poem to determine the answer to that question.
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