Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the Night Before Christmas

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore penned the lines of the classic Christmas poem, "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," which begins with the immortal lines:
"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, 
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
Publication History

The poem was first published anonymously in The Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Many of the features that we now associate with Santa Claus, including his appearance, the night of his visit, and his eight reindeer, originate with the lines of this well-loved poem. It was frequently republished in succeeding years, although it was not until 1837 that The New-York Book of Poetry first published the poem with Moore identified as the author.

The New-York Book of Poetry (1837), edited by Charles Fenno Hoffman. Moore's Christmas poem appears on p. 217.
Reindeer Names

The 1837 edition, edited by Charles Fenno Hoffman, is also notable for changing the spelling of two of the reindeer names from "Dunder and Blixem" to "Donder and Blixen." When Clement Moore issued his own book of poems in 1844, he further altered "Blixen" to "Blitzen," the spelling which is usually seen today.

The First Independent Publication

The Clements Library is fortunate to possess one of the few known copies of the first independent publication of the poem: A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, with original cuts designed and engraved by Boyd (New York, Henry M. Onderdonck, 1848). Two other copies are described in the 1964 "The Night Before Christmas": An Exhibition Catalogue, one of which is now in the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

Theodore C. Boyd did the woodcuts that illustrate the volume, and his model for St. Nicholas is reported to have been a local Dutch handyman. Although somewhat different from our modern concept of Santa Claus, the illustrations are clearly a recognizable precursor.

The poem closes with: "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." The first known appearance of "Merry Christmas" in the poem was in an 1862 edition published by James G. Gregory.

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night"
Other Editions

The Clements book collection includes several other 19th century printings of the poem, which vary greatly in size and style. One version printed in the 1860s, only four inches tall, is an accordion-style book:
Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night, by Clement C. Moore (1860s).
Another late 19th century version is lavishly illustrated with chromolithographs:
Visit of St. Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore (late 19th century).
The multiple editions of this poem provide evidence of its enduring popularity in American culture. Even today, it continues to be reprinted, adapted and parodied in many forms, from literature to music to film. Spoof versions have included James Thurber's "A Visit from St. Nicholas in the Ernest Hemingway Manner," which originally appeared in The New Yorker, December 24, 1927.

Further reading:
  1. "The Night Before Christmas": An Exhibition Catalogue. Compiled by George H.M. Lawrence; foreword by Anne Lyon Haight. Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Bibliophiles, 1964.
  2., a large collection of scans of historical editions of the poem.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas :)

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