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.

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