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A Visit from St. Nicholas

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"from its first line) is a poem first published anonymously in 1823. It is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and that he brings toys to children. Prior to the poem, American ideas about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably. The poem has influenced ideas about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus beyond the United States to the rest of the Anglosphere and the world.

Plot

While his wife and children sleep, a man awakens to noises outside his house. Looking out the window, he spies landing on his roof St. Nicholas in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. The saint enters the house through the chimney. The man watches Nicholas filling the children's stockings hanging by the fire. They share a conspiratorial moment before the saint bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, Nicholas wishes everyone a happy Christmas.

Literary history

The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823, and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. Authorship was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore and the poem was included in an 1844 anthology of his works, but his connection with the verses has been questioned by some, such as Professor Donald Foster. Moore's wife was of Dutch descent, being a descendant of the Van Cortlandt family via her mother. She shared bloodlines with Henry Livingston, Jr., and Clement Clarke Moore's family was married into the Livingston family as well. Livingston, a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, is considered the chief candidate for authorship if Moore did not write it.

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman, editor, reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen" 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".

Today, some printings alter the grammar and spelling of the poem and replace somewhat archaic words, such as ere, with ones more familiar to modern readers. The final line, originally written as "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night", has been changed in many editions to "Merry Christmas to all", in accord with the standard Christmas greeting current in the United States.

Original copies

Four hand-written copies of the poem are known to exist, and three are in museums. 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. According to Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, which brokered the private sale, it was purchased for $280,000 U.S. by an unnamed "chief executive officer of a media company" who resides in Manhattan. Newswire reports at the time made no mention of the authorship controversy.

Authorship controversy

Evidence to support Moore as author

  • "Professor Moore" is credited as author in the December 25, 1837 Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier.
  • Moore claimed the poem in 1844. This was at the request of his children. He had preferred to be known for more scholarly works.
  • Moore may have had access to A History of New York by "Dietrich Knickerbocker" (Washington Irving) which covers the story of Sinterklaas.
  • Moore and Irving were members of the same literary society in New York City and were friends.
  • Although some say Moore falsely claimed authorship once before, this has since been challenged. He signed a book as a gift, as one dedicates a book they give to another person. He did not claim authorship. Document historian Seth Kallar has answered this charge and other related arguments.
  • Rev. David Butler, who allegedly showed the poem to Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley, was a relative of Moore's.
  • A letter to Moore from the publisher states "I understand from Mr. Holley that he received it from Mrs. Sackett, the wife of Mr. Daniel Sackett who was then a merchant in this city."
  • Although Moore wrote darker poems, Nissenbaum argues that it could have been a social satire of the Victorianization of Christmas.

Evidence to support Livingston as author

  • Use of anapaestic rhyme scheme and metre consistent with Livingston.
  • Use of Dutch "Dunder and Blixem" — Livingston's mother was Dutch.
  • Phraseology consistent with other Livingston poems.
  • Livingston wrote cheerful poems, Moore typically more miserable ones.

Evidence to discredit Moore as author

  • Moore "tried at first to disavow" the poem.
  • Moore may falsely have taken credit as a book's translator, although other researchers regard this as a misinterpretation of a book dedication(see above).
  • Moore claimed that only two changes were introduced in the first printing, yet it differs from his own on 23 points.

Adaptations and parodies

Being a very well-known poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has inspired many parodies.

  • At the beginning of the series 9 episode "The One with Christmas in Tulsa" of Friends, Phoebe sings the last four lines of The Night Before Christmas, from "He sprang to his sleigh" to the end, to Joey, claiming she wrote it.
  • In the Garfield comic strips published during the week of December 19–24, 1983, the text of the poem was drawn above scenes of Garfield acting out the part of the narrator.
  • In the Luann comic strip, Luann's dad has read "The Night Before Christmas" to the wife and kids, and when he reads the verse "Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash", he leaves out "the sash", providing great merriment to Luann and her brother Brad.
  • In A Muppet Family Christmas, the Muppets from Sesame Street perform a play based on the poem, with Ernie narrating as the father (the main character) and Bert as Mamma (he lost a coin toss). The monsters appear as the reindeer, with the Two-Headed Monster as Santa (and Grover as the mouse who is not stirring, literally). The narration omits the line "The children were nestled, all snug in their bed(s)/While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads", because of the homosexuality rumor.
  • In the Barney and the Backyard Gang special "Waiting for Santa", Barney reads the story to the young children he has befriended, all while Santa himself is in the living room of the house doing his usual work. He falls asleep just as he comes to "With a little old driver, so lively and quick/I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick". Santa whispers the last quotation to the camera after that.
  • In the film National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) reads the story to his extended family, but changes the narrative when he looks out the window and sees Cousin Eddie and Eddie's kidnapped hostage (Clark's boss) approaching the house. Instead of describing the "miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer", Clark describes the strange event taking place in his front yard.
  • Issue 40 of the DC comic book Young Justice (published in 2001) is a full-length parody of the poem. Unusually for a comic book, it features no panels or word balloon, only full-page illustrations accompanied by rhyming text. In the story, Santa sacrifices his life to save the world from a vengeful alien villain (though it's implied he'll be reborn next Christmas) and the teen heroes are stuck with the task of delivering all his gifts.
  • Episode 55 of Animaniacs featured a skit titled "The Day Before Christmas", in which Ralph the Guard is given the task of delivering Yakko, Wakko, and Dot's Christmas presents. The short is presented as a bedtime story told by Slappy Squirrel to her nephew Skippy and is narrated in the poetic form as the original story. This cartoon was adapted into comic book form in a special comic book published by DC Comics in October 1994.
  • The Histeria! episode "The Return of the American Revolution" featured a sketch about George Washington's famous trip across the Delaware River (which, coincidentally, actually occurred right at Christmas 1776), narrated in the poem's fashion.
  • The Tim Burton 1993 stop-action film The Nightmare Before Christmas is a parody on the title.
  • In "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", a short animated TV movie from 1974 by Rankin/Bass, the characters and portions of the plot are loosely based on the poem.
  • A hip-hop animated version of the poem was made as an hour long animated special, The Night B4 Christmas.
  • In the FoxTrot strip published on December 24, 1998, Roger and Andy are shown reading the poem in bed when they suddenly hear the kids sneaking downstairs. Roger comments that the poem was "surely written by someone who never had kids".
  • The comedy musical 'Twas the Night by Lani Brockman and Susan Bardsley is based on the poem.
  • In the web comic Ctrl+Alt+Del, a series of comics titled a "A Winter-Een-Mas Story" parodies with poems about the spirits of Winter-een-mas.
  • American nu metal band Korn released a promotional 12" single in 1993, shortly after their signing with Immortal Records. A very limited number of copies were pressed of this single; it featured two versions of their "A Visit from St. Nicholas" parody: "Christmas Song (Squeak by the FCC version)" and "Christmas Song (Blatant FCC Violation version)".
  • In the Dave Van Ronk song "Yas Yas Yas", the poem is parodied in the verse "'twas the night before Christmas, all was quiet in the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, when from the lawn there came a big crash. It was Father Christmas landing on his yas yas yas."
  • The poem was set to music by Ken Darby and performed at Christmastime airings of Fibber McGee and Molly, usually introduced by Teeny, the neighbor girl, as their "Christmas Carol".
  • Some Christmastime airings of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had Charlie McCarthy trying to recite the poem from memory, resulting in such hilarious lines as "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care/In hopes that the laundryman soon would be there" (a few times the line went "In hopes that the room could stand some fresh air"), "He flies through the air with the greatest of ease/The jolly old elf in the red BVD's" and "Now, Dasher, Now, Dancer, and what do you know/Dasher and Dancer paid $220 to show!"
  • In the movie Die Hard, Theo alerts his friends to the SWAT team's arrival with the opening line of this poem.
  • The children's book Cajun Night Before Christmas offers a Cajun version of the classic tale.
  • For Christmas 1985, the Internet Engineering Task Force circulated an RFC document that was actually a poem about the early days of the Internet, titled "Twas the Night Before Start-up".
  • On Laurie Z's 2001 recording Heart of the Holidays, actor Jack Palance narrates the poem.
  • There is a poem centered on the computer game Doom called "The Night Before Doom" which appears in the Official DOOM F.A.Q.
  • There's a Pokémon version of this poem on the CD Pokémon Christmas Bash.
  • The title of the Danny Phantom episode "The Fright Before Christmas" is a parody of the poem. Like "The Night Before Christmas", the episode is almost entirely in rhyme.
  • The Bob Rivers comedy album Twisted Christmas features the track "A Visit from St. Nicholson", a narration of a Christmas visit by Jack Nicholson.
  • An animated video parody called "Mikey the Squirrel's Night Before Christmas" satires how commercialism has changed Christmas.

References

Other works

  • Foster, Donald (2000). Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6357-9.
  • Gardner, Martin (1991). The Annotated Night Before Christmas: A Collection Of Sequels, Parodies, And Imitations Of Clement Moore's Immortal Ballad About Santa Claus; Edited, with an introduction and notes, by Martin Gardner. Summit Books. ISBN 0-671-70839-2.
  • Nissenbaum, Stephen (1997). The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas that Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnival Season into the Quintessential American Family Holiday. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-41223-9.

External links

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