A Visit from St. Nicholas
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"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.
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.
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 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.
The authorship of "A Visit" is credited to Clement Clarke Moore who is said to have composed it 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, 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. 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".
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.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to A Visit from St. Nicholas.|
- Free audiobook from LibriVox
- eText of a 1912 edition of the poem, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, at Project Gutenberg
- Free Audiobook from The Internet Archive (Community Audio)
- Twaz The Night Before Christmas - Celebrity Version as read by 23 UK-known media personalities
- A Visit from Saint Nicholas From the Collections at the Library of Congress
- Twas the Night Before Christmas (Poem) - Text | Video by Check123