Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part II: Twas Night Before Christmas (A Visit From St. Nicholas), by Clement C. Moore

Though certainly not a carol in the traditional sense, Clement C. Moore’s wonderful Twas Night Before Christmas (originally entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas) has often been set to music.  There are several delightful musical renditions of the poem, and perhaps our favorite here at the Jade Sphinx is that of Christmas Cowboy Deluxe, Gene Autry (1907-1998), recorded with Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002).  If you don’t believe us – listen and see:

(Before moving on to Mr. Moore and Mr. Claus, a quick word on Gene Autry.  The very best Christmas present one could get is the classic cowboy’s Christmas album.  Autry introduced Frosty the Snowman, as well as Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and his recordings of these numbers are definitive.  In addition, the other songs on the album – including Santa, Santa, Santa and the lovely and evocative Merry Christmas Waltz – are seldom-heard gems, and they have become a tradition in our household.  They should become a tradition in yours, as well.)

Clement Moore (1779-1863) lived with his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and their nine children in a large, comfortable Georgian manor house in what is now the Chelsea section of New York.  The estate, called Chelsea, rested on 96 acres of farmland, which hopefully illustrates that, if nothing else, Manhattan is constantly changing.

Early one Christmas Eve, in his carriage en route to Washington Market to buy a holiday turkey, he began composing a Christmas poem for his six-year-old daughter, Charity.  Back home in his study, he consulted Henry Irving’s History, and finished the poem in three hours.  That night, at supper, he read it aloud to his family – it was the first time Twas Night Before Christmas was heard by an audience.  It was an instant hit.  Charity brought it to her Sunday School class, and then friends had the poem published in the Troy, New York Sentinel the following Christmas in 1823.  Moore, a scholar and serious educator, was initially reluctant to admit authorship.

It was more than 40 years later that the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) created the modern Santa Claus when illustrating a republication of Moore’s poem.  As cartoonist for the influential illustrated Harper’s Weekly, for each Christmas issue he drew a Santa, which he claimed was a welcome relief from his usual round of political cartooning.  One wonders how he would feel now.

One of the many interesting things in Santa’s evolution is that Moore originally conceived of Santa as elf-sized.  This somehow got lost in the details, as Nast’s Santa was republished everywhere: calendars, cards, posters and wrapping paper.  Between Moore and Nast, the modern Santa Claus was born.

Here’s the original poem:

'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 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 what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he 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, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop 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 on 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 bowl full 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!”

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