Excerpt Taken from the book "Beyond the Beard" by James Brown
This legendary poem has had one of the most definitive impacts on how Americans relate to Santa Claus! It was first published anonymously on December 23, 1823, in The Sentinel newspaper of Troy, New York.(1) Initially known as A Visit From St. Nicholas, the poem is more famously known today by its first line, as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. (2) Currently, there are four original copies of A Visit from St. Nicholas in existence, with three in museums and one privately bought for $280,000 in a 2006 auction. (3)
While there has been a debate over the actual author of this highly influential poem, two professors, Don Foster of Vassar College and MacDonald P. Jackson of University of Auckland, New Zealand, both closely analyzed the writings of Henry Livingston, Jr., and Clement Clarke Moore (who took credit for the poem in 1837). Foster, in 2000, and Jackson, in 2016, independently determined that Henry Livingston, Jr. was in fact, the true author. (4)
Regardless of the actual author, this poem was one of the first to describe Santa himself, his visits to children’s homes on Christmas Eve, and name the reindeer. (5) An interesting observation is that while the poem’s vibrant and engaging language reflects more of a religious background and tone, the poem actually had an immediate impact on the American economy as merchants pushed to sell toys during the Christmas season and parents
frequently used the possibility of Santa bringing toys as behavior motivation tools. 415, (6)
Images and symbols used in the poem were transferred to marketable items and in the 1930s, Coca-Cola® used J.C. Leyendecker’s version of Santa and his famous red suit/white fur for a wildly successful international advertising campaign.
St. Nicholas lived in the 3rd century, serving as a bishop in the Church, bringing money, food, and toys to anyone in need, especially children. His actions on the part of three sisters spawned the tradition of putting gifts into stockings hanging by the fireplace, as St. Nicholas brought money to enable each young lady to marry. (7)
While ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas reminds its readers of St. Nicholas and hints of the deeds now construed into legend, the poem also introduced us to Santa’s team of flying reindeer, who pulled his sleigh. Prior to this poem, reindeer were not associated with Santa and his sleigh. Over time, the reindeer grew to become an essential part of what Americans connect with Santa. In fact, each reindeer has a name, much like humans name their horses and pets, which makes the reindeer more personable and relatable. The reindeer lent a fantastical, magical essence to the poem’s story, which then also lent itself towards a more secular and commercial version of Christmas. As time went on, St. Nicholas became synonymous with Santa Claus. (8)
American illustrator Thomas Nast created the Victorian Santa look still used in modern times. Nast drew the Christmas related illustrations for A Visit From St. Nicholas, Santa Claus and His Works, and other books, until 1886. Initially, Nast drew Santa as an elf wearing a brown fur suit. Later on, Nast’s images of Santa changed, presenting Santa in a red suit which is still seen today. Additionally, Santa’s toy workshop, North Pole residence and the “naughty or nice” lists are also credited to Nast. Historians believe that Nast’s depictions of Santa were based upon his own physical characteristics, including plumpness, beard, and height. Nast’s version of Santa has enriched Santa’s story and endured over decades through song, television, radio, Christmas cards and shopping. (9)
Yet amidst all the commercialism, the reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve has become a seasonal tradition in many American homes. The 56 lines using 431 words has become one of the most treasured and globally known pieces of Christmas literature. (10)
Over 300 editions and adaptations of this poem are registered in the Library of Congress, which again demonstrates its popularity. Millions of Americans read the poem or watch a movie version over the Christmas season. For many, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas embodies a secular part of their holiday traditions, while for others, they still relate to the religious aspects, and yet some see both the secular and religious qualities. Nevertheless, from one generation to the next, this beloved poem continues to be shared in the spirit of Christmas.(11)
1-Sager, J. (2021, December 23). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: The Story and Trivia Behind the Beloved Classic Holiday Tale. Parade. Retrieved July 10, 2022, from https://parade.com/1136533/jessicasager/twas-the-night-before-christmas-words/
2-Tucker, N. (2020, December 23). A Visit from Santa...Who You Might Not Recognize . Library of Congress Blog. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2020/12/a-visit-from-santa-who-you-might-not-recognize/
3-Sager, J. (2021, December 23). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
4-Jackson, M. D. P. (2016). Who wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston question. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
5-Tucker, N. (2020, December 23). A Visit from Santa...Who You Might Not Recognize . Library of Congress Blog.
6-Painter, S. (n.d.). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: Poem history & printable. LoveToKnow. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from https://christmas.lovetoknow.com/Twas_the_Night_Before_Christmas
7- Painter, S. (n.d.). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
8-A.P. Sabourin, illustrator. Santa Claus through the Years | A.P. Sabourin. (2011, December 21). Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://apsabourin.com/blog/santa-claus-through-the-years.php
9-Tucker, N. (2020, December 23). A Visit from Santa...Who You Might Not Recognize . Library of Congress Blog.
10-Painter, S. (n.d.). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
11-Painter, S. (n.d.). 'Twas the Night Before Christmas