I am very excited about starting our family tradition this Christmas Eve with reading “Twas the night before Christmas” to my son. I would expect this is a typical tradition in many households around the country. The words from the story are so familiar to all of us:
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.
Those lines role off the American tongue like no other story in our history, however what makes this story so famous, why is it so popular. The story was first published December 23, 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, by an anonymous writer under the title “Account of a visit by St. Nicholas.” It is surprising to see that this poems popularity exploded so much when it was buried on page 3 in between random stories and marriage announcements. Despite being credited to an anonymous writer the poem is widely attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and writer. At the time the poem was written, Christmas Day was slowly surpassing New Year’s Day as the family gathering holiday of the season however many Protestants were apprehensive of the holiday because Christ’s apparent birth was not in the winter months of December. The traditions of Christmas we have today, especially in connection with Santa Claus and gift giving, were not in existence like they are today. The historical figure of St. Nicholas was known by some, especially those who practice Catholicism, for giving generous gifts to the poor. The idea of Santa Claus transcended from there to a Sinterklaas and then a character named Father Christmas from the British tradition. The notion of incorporating characters such as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or others during the Christmas season was far from the norm. Moore’s story actually helped establish many of our Christmas traditions including the character of Santa Claus that we know and love today. His physical appearance, the night he visits, his sleigh and reindeer, along with the number and names of the reindeer, as well as his mode of operation which involved landing on top of the house and going down the chimney to deliver toys to children all came from Moore’s story.
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler 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 has a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
The jolly fat man, in a white beard and red suit visiting house to house every night was created by Moore in his story “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. New York was one of the first major cities to embrace Moore’s Santa Claus, which saw a large proportion of non-Christian families using Santa Claus as their reason for celebration and gift giving. From there the story of Santa Claus was reproduced over and over again in various versions and from multiple perspectives. Between 1823 and today Santa Claus has grow into a center piece of the American culture and Christmas tradition. People from all over the world have taken this version of Santa and adapted it to fit to their own culture. So as you read and listen to “Twas the Night Before Christmas” this time of year, remember that this is the story that helped give birth to the legend that is Santa Claus.