Thursday, December 07, 2006
The Night Before Christmas
It’s that time of year again; time to hear or recite the classic poem attributed to Clement C. Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” which first debuted in a New York newspaper in 1823. I have to admit that I loved this poem as a child, memorized it easily, and recited it with relish for many years. It had the breathless appeal of a campfire story, with the zest of a cheer or chant. As an adult, I learned that Moore may not have written the poem at all and that it was first attributed to “Anonymous.” It has also undergone extensive editing, with the names of the reindeer often changed ("Dunder" vs. "Donner"). One of my favorite picture book renditions of the first version of the poem (complete with Author’s Note) is Matt Tavares’ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, strikingly illustrated in black and white, ala Chris Van Allsburg (although James Marshall’s cartoon version is pretty darn great, too!).
Over the years, this poem has appeared in picture book form many times over, illustrated by dozens of illustrators, from Arthur Rackham and Tasha Tudor to Jan Brett and Mary Engelbreit. I have collected many of these versions, looking for the most unusual variants of spin-offs I can find, from pop up to coloring book, Care Bear or Rugrat, and of course The Night Before Christmas, in Texas, That Is by Leon Harris. And apparently, I am not the only one who enjoys finding parodies of the poem. I found nearly 20 other versions from “An Ernest Hemingway Christmas” (from The New Yorker archives) to two versions of “A Star Trek Christmas” at http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/historical/a/twas_the_night.htm
Other authors and illustrators have taken the poem’s “formula” and transferred it to Halloween (The Fright Before Christmas by Judy Sierra), or spun a Christmas version with feminist commentary (A Visit From St. Nicholas To a Liberated Household by Judith Viorst), or infused it with cultural diversity (look for the Black Santa in 'Twas the Night B’Fore Christmas; An African-American Version by Melodye Rosales), or created a visual poem puzzle (Can You See What I See? Night Before Christmas by Walter Wick). One new version that appeared this year is A Soldier’s Night Before Christmas by Trish Holland and Christine Ford, illustrated by John Manders. Here, “Sergeant McClaus” delivers unexpected gifts to soldiers sleeping among Blackhawks and Humvees in a desert setting. Although this Golden Book may not win any literary prizes, this version may be just what many families need this Christmas, with its closing refrain, “Happy Christmas, brave soldiers! May peace come to all.”
The poem may take many forms, from playful to serious, but it seems to have staying power with its musical rhyme and hopeful message. It’s certainly firmly entrenched in popular culture! Look for your favorite version to share or challenge children to create their own renditions. And of course, seek out poems that capture other holiday or seasonal celebrations, too.