The poem we collectively know as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ is actually titled ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’. It was written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823 (though first published anonymously it was later attributed to and acknowledged by Moore) and is an iconic poem; one of the best-known American poems, in fact. It was instrumental in ushering in a cohesive public image of Santa Claus which has endured to this day. The “jolly old elf” with the red cheeks and nose, the round belly, the fur clothes, and the white beard were not agreed upon attributes of St. Nick until Moore’s poem. Everything about ‘A Visit’ now stands as canon, including the fact that Santa makes his rounds on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Did you know that two of the reindeer, Donder and Blitzen, are named for thunder and lightning? If you speak German you already knew that - the rest of us might be surprised.
But the hows and whys of the poem don’t matter. It’s the feel of it. It conveys a sense of absolute wonder for me. It always has. These lines especially:
“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 my 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 a lustre of midday to objects below”
When I was a kid Christmas Eve crackled with magic. It was a mystical night. Sometimes, growing up in Vancouver, there’d even be snow outside. The tree in the living room would be twinkling with hundreds of colored lights, reflecting off crystal icicles, heirloom ornaments, and handmade treasures nestled in every bough. All other lights in the house would be dimmed so the tree seemed enormous, like the entire room existed only to house it. There would always be Christmas music on the stereo. My sister and I would set out milk and cookies for Santa, a carrot for Rudolph, and choose a good spot for our stockings (we didn’t have a fireplace). Sometimes we’d get to hear a story before being shooed to bed. Sometimes ‘A Christmas Carol’ and sometimes this very poem. Once in bed if I lay very still I could hear the strains of the Christmas music drifting up the hall. Bing Crosby. Nat King Cole. Tony Bennett. The sound of it and the memory of the warmly lit tree and the knowledge that frost lay thick and crisp just outside the window and the thrill of it being Christmas Eve dancing up my spine would weave the most perfect spell. Nothing could break it. Nothing could quash it. It was absolute magic. Even now the memory of that feeling is so sharp and clear that I shiver just a little in remembered excitement.
I always thought that hearing a noise on the lawn on Christmas Eve would be the ultimate gift. Any other night and it would be alarming but on Christmas Eve if I’d heard a clatter I would eagerly have sprung from my bed to see what was the matter. It wasn’t the anticipation of seeing Santa Claus that would have driven me out of the covers, necessarily, though I did always love seeing my full stocking waiting for me on Christmas morning. But that sense of the unknown, the moon gleaming off the snow, and something magical waking me... that was the truest thrill. The poem, to me, seemed to speak to that part of me. Like somehow I wasn’t the only one who wanted a magic experience to shake me from slumber and show me something marvelous and impossible.
Then too I always loved how it ended:
“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!’”
Poof! Up into the air, light as snow, shimmering indistinct into the distance, and a voice calling out under the stars “Happy Christmas”. Magic! A beautiful end. And so now all that’s left me to say is an echo of words already said a hundred, a thousand times before:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
- Corinne Simpson