Christmas Classics: The Night Before Christmas

When I was very little, my grandparents sent me a copy of Clement C. Moore’s classic tale, and my mother read it to us every Christmas Eve until I was well into my teens (mothers are like that).

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My childhood copy of ‘The Night Before Christmas’, possibly c. 1970.

First published in 1823 and originally titled ‘A Visit From Saint Nicholas’,  ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which takes its more commonly-used title from its first line, cemented the image of Santa Claus (from the Dutch pronunciation of Saint Nicholas) as a jolly, overweight, elderly elf with a curly white beard and fur-trimmed suit, riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer, in the popular imagination. The red suit, however, did not originate with Moore, and is usually traced to an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola.

The original Saint Nicholas was the fourth-century Greek Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey), to whom a number of miracles are traditionally attributed, and who is remembered as the patron saint of children (as well as sailors, brewers and repentant thieves, among others). One popular legend attests that he threw purses of money through the window into a house where the father was too poor to pay the dowry for his three daughters, thus enabling them to marry and escape the grim prospect of a life of prostitution.

St Nicholas
Russian icon depicting St Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 15th century or early 16th century. National Museum, Stockholm.

Needless to say, only the part about the children and the gifts makes its way into Moore’s cheerful work in which ‘visions of sugar-plums’ dance in the heads of sleeping youngsters as Saint Nicholas slips down the chimney to stuff their stockings with Christmas presents from his sack, witnessed only by the father, before leaping back into his sleigh and riding away, leaving in his wake a cry of ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!’.

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The first page of ‘A Night Before Christmas’. Note the little mouse asleep under the Christmas tree – on a later page he turns up again, holding his stocking out for Santa to fill. Awww.

While some may argue that the cult of Santa Claus has become symptomatic of the rampant commercialism which has robbed Christmas of much of its wonder and delight, as well as alienating it from any spiritual roots, I don’t believe that a 19th century story can be held accountable for 21st century choices. Told in simple rhyming couplets and usually accompanied by charming illustrations, there is good reason why this delightful story has become a Christmas classic.

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‘Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.’

What’s your take on the importance placed on Santa Claus in modern Christmas celebrations? Innocent fun for the kiddies, or something more sinister?

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