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A Short Analysis of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’

‘’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse’: as opening lines go, they must be up there in the top five most famous opening lines from an American poem (something from Emily Dickinson would also have to be in there). ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, to give the poem its proper title, is perhaps the most famous Christmas poem ever written, too, but the poem’s origins and attribution to a man named Clement Clarke Moore are not as straightforward as they may first appear…

A Visit from St Nicholas

’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 our brains 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 head, 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 pedler 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.’

One poem in particular would invent much of our modern idea of Santa Claus, and it is this poem: ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, by Clement Clarke Moore (although on this last bit, read on: was the poem that begins ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’ actually by Clement Clarke Moore?). This is where we learn the names of Santa’s reindeer, but also where we get the idea of Santa riding a sleigh powered by flying reindeer – a conceit that was pretty much invented, and certainly popularised, in ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’.

More commonly known by its first line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’, this poem was published anonymously on 23 December 1823 in the New York newspaper, Sentinel. ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ popularised the image of St Nick as a jolly fat man wearing fur-trimmed red robes (long before the Coca-Cola adverts popularised the red robes – something they didn’t actually do, and in fact they weren’t even the first drinks company to advertise their product using a red-robed Santa!).

The poem also introduced us to the names of all of Santa’s reindeer (with the exception of Rudolph, who would not come into being until the 1930s). ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was published anonymously, and its authorship remains a contentious issue. Clement Clarke Moore, an American scholar of Hebrew, came forward as the author in 1837, and his claim has been largely accepted – although a rival group of scholars credit Henry Livingston Jr., another American poet (who also had about a hundred other jobs, during the course of his life), as the one we should thank for the poem. A detailed account of the ‘St Nicholas Authorship Question’ (which finds in favour of Moore) can be found here.

If you like ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ – regardless of whether Clement Clarke Moore was the one who wrote it – you might also enjoy our post delving into the histories of ten famous Christmas carols.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 22, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It is interesting that the writer talks about St Nicholas being described as “a jolly fat man wearing fur-trimmed red robes” – but the poet says “He was dressed all in fur” – fur – not a red robe in sight. And – he isn’t a man. He’s ‘a jolly old elf” – everything about him is “little” “little mouth” “little round belly” – that’s why he drives a miniature sleigh, with reindeer in proportion, how he manages to land on the roof of a normal sized house, and get down the chimney. The image of St Nicholas as an elf dressed in fur never took hold at all (and now there are rumblings about that fur – and the pipe – certainly neither are suitable for children – perhaps better omitted…). This, of course raises the question of where the robe came from? When St Nicholas visits children in Europe he wears his bishop’s vestments. Could the robe be related to the coat worn by the Father Christmas character of the English mummers’ plays. Who carried a sack full of dolls, representing his large family (he went round with the collecting box at the end of the performance, explaining he needed the money for them).

  2. Santa Claus is an idol not a person, not big or small man. It’s just an idol that became popular in many countries as a symbol of giving, a symbol of celebration. Who cares whether it’s a man or an elf? Just enjoy the concept.

    • No, I am aware that the poet is not talking about a real person (although St Nicholas, who is one of the figures who gave rise to the Santa Claus/Father Christmas figure, was) but, from a folk-lore point of view I am interested in how the image developed. It is interesting, for instance, that in Europe Saint Nicholas is accompanied by the demonic Krampus, who brings birches for naughty children, and is often portrayed carrying them off, while Father Christmas (who did not originally give presents, but took the collection after the play) turns up in a surprising amount of horror stories. Also that while the sleigh and the reindeer, now normal size were instantly taken up as an attribute of the Father Christmas figure, the furs – and the size and indeed the pipe -were not.
      I find Father Christmas/Santa Claus a rather ambiguous figure.

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