Thu 23 Dec 2010
You are probably familiar with the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore that begins “Twas the night before Christmas”. We have at least two copies of it in book-form in our house (with James Marshall and Corinne Malvern as illustrators), and it’s a book that Harriet has been frequently asking to have read recently.
It’s justly well-known, as it, as much as any other source, is responsible for the modern-day conception of Santa Claus / Father Christmas / St Nicholas. According to Wikipedia’s pages on Moore’s poem and Santa, the 1823 poem (called “A Visit from St Nicholas”) can be credited with establishing:
- Santa’s physical attributes,
- arriving on Christmas Eve,
- traveling via a reindeer-drawn sleigh,
- the names of the reindeer,
- entering via the chimney, and
- bringing toys to children!
So, after the n-th reading of it, I was surprised to realise that there was something I’d missed. Although all the illustrations that accompanied the poem depicted St Nick as normal human-size (as well as every illustration I’ve ever seen of Santa), the poem clearly casts him as a midget. Not only is Father Christmas pint-sized, but so are all of the reindeer.
Here are the relevant lines from the poem:
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf
Yes, that’s right – Santa is a tiny elf who travels in a miniature sleigh. Hence why the reindeer can land on the roof of a house and why he can fit down a chimney (although, some physicists have speculated at other ways Santa might fit down a chimney).
The part of the Santa Claus cultural tradition that states that he is a large, portly man comes not from Moore’s poem, but from elsewhere, e.g. soft-drink advertising campaigns, or Thomas Nast’s illustrations. It is the combination of this large Santa with Moore’s slim-chimney-fitting Santa that has created a problem, i.e. that we need to explain how Father Christmas gets down the chimney.
So, now every time I read the story for Harriet, I’m going to have dissonance in my head between the words and the pictures, and will dread answering how Santa gets into the house in a way that gels with the poem as well as the more “normal” view of him. Although it was very influential, it’s a pity that the poem wasn’t also influential in the matter of St Nick’s size.
One last way that the poem has been influential is in the number of alternative re-tellings that it has generated. There is a good collection of them here. I like the one about assembling presents – this is also something (given two children under three) that I dread will happen.