Poetry has a strong connection to our Christmas traditions. One poem in particular has always stood out amongst the crowd of cheerful verses. We’ve all heard it once, or maybe a hundred times in our lives. It is arguably the most popular Christmas poem, and one of the most recognizable pieces of literature in American history. It has made its way into countless holiday movies, songs, and books. It’s become a longstanding tradition for parents to recite the lines to their children, just before tucking them in on Christmas Eve. However, if you’re like me, you’re mostly only familiar with the first six lines:
‘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;
This is the classic verse we all know and love to repeat, as Christmas draws closer. It may come as a shock that there are actually 56 lines in the poem. Many people are also unaware of the correct title. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published anonymously in 1823. It wasn’t until 1837 that authorship was claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, though some actually believe the poem was written by Henry Livingston Jr. There is a whole slew of evidence supporting an argument for both poets, but now is not the time for such clatter. Christmas isn’t a time for debating. It is a time for joy, and love, and harmony. What matters most is the feeling we get when we read or hear this unforgettable slice of yuletide poetry.
The really interesting thing about this poem is that it forever changed the way we view St. Nick:
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,
This is essentially the traditional version of Santa Claus we still see depicted in films, literature, artwork, advertisements, gift shows, and shopping malls all across America. Earlier depictions of St. Nicholas (a Christian bishop from Greece) showed him as a younger, thinner man, with a small white beard. He was known for delivering gifts to the poor. “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” introduced us to a rosy cheeked, pipe smoking, pleasant old man, with a stomach as big and heavy as the toy sack he carried over his shoulder. And the gifts this merry man had weren’t just for the poor, they were for all the little girls and boys (as long as they were good).
It never seemed too hard to make it to Santa’s good list. The twinkle in his eyes, and the laughter in his gut, has always given kids a positive character to connect with during the Christmas season. The image of St. Nick and his “eight tiny reindeer” flying through the air, and “prancing and pawning” on children’s rooftops has always been exciting for them, just as it is for the man in the poem. Not to mention the idea of this heavyset fellow squeezing down their chimneys with gifts, and filling up all those stockings that were hung with care. It’s no wonder why kids have such a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. This poem has played a big, chubby part in the excitement that many of us have experienced and shared over the years. When St. Nick finally speaks at the end of the tale, it feels like he’s talking directly to you:
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
How many lines do you know from this Christmas classic? Don’t wait until the night before Christmas. View the full poem here:
Author: Written by Alan Ritch for the PA Christmas & Gift Show