Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Visit from St. Nicholas

An 1862 illustration of "A Visit from Saint Nicholas"

Watch a dramatic reading of this poem by yours truly on YouTube (and subscribe to my channel!)

Read a little more, including another vocabulary exercise, in Lesson #08-024.

"A Visit from Saint Nicholas"--better known by its first line, "'Twas the Night before Christmas"--was published anonymously in a newspaper in Troy, New York, in 1823. The author was later identified as Clement Clarke Moore, Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at an Episcopal seminary. (These days, his authorship is disputed.)

The poem set the standard for how we see Santa Claus today. The original model, the fourth-century bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra, was thinner, and rode a horse. And though he did bestow gifts at night, he did so through a window. Chubbiness, flying reindeer, chimneys: they all come from this poem.

"Santa Claus," as you may know, came from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, "Sinter Klaas." New York, where Moore lived, had been settled by the Dutch--in fact, the southern tip of Manhattan Island was called "New Amsterdam" from 1609 to 1664--and so he had probably heard lots of Dutch lore about the saint.

Here's the poem:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too--

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes--how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight--
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"


Santa's Arrival, circa 1870

Here's the poem told as a story:

The narrator says everything was peaceful. Stockings were hanging by the chimney, and the children were dreaming of "sugar plums," a kind of sweet. The narrator and his wife had just lain down when he heard a great noise outside. Jumping out of bed and opening the window, he saw out on the snowy lawn "a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer," with "a little old driver": St. Nick himself!

The old man called the flying reindeer by the names we still use--Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen--and guided them up to the roof of the house. The sleigh was "full of toys," and St. Nicholas came "Down the chimney... with a bound," carrying a sackful of them. He was dressed in fur, and he was covered with "ashes and soot" from the chimney.

The narrator describes the figure much as we picture him today: twinkling eyes, dimples, rosy cheeks, a cherry-like nose, a small bow-like mouth, and a white beard. He was smoking a pipe, and had a broad face and "a little round belly, / That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly." (He was, after all, "chubby and plump," causing the narrator to "laugh... in spite of [him]self.")

The "jolly old elf" didn't speak, but after a wink at the narrator went straight to work filling the stockings. He then lay "his finger aside of his nose, / And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose." On the roof, he jumped into his sleigh and "gave a whistle" to his team of reindeer, and off they flew. "But," the narrator says in ending his story, "I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, / 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!'"

Some Words to Know (for English Language Learners):

  • chimney: a structure for carrying smoke from a fireplace or stove
  • lawn: area (usually) covered by grass
  • sleigh: a kind of wagon with blades instead of wheels, for traveling on snow
  • in a twinkling: in a brief moment
  • dimples: hollow areas in a person's cheek (seen when they smile);
  • ere: before (old-fashioned)


Vocabulary Exercise

Place the correct word in each sentence. Answers are in the comments below.

  1. It never snows here, so even though I have a horse, I think a ----- would be useless.
  2. There's too much smoke in the house! We have to clean the -----.
  3. My roommate works fast. He cleans our house -----.
  4. 'Twas dawn ----- we arrived home from our journey.
  5. We like to play games on the ----- in front of our house.
  6. I think ----- look cute. Do you?

Questions for Writing or Discussion

  1. What story or stories do you know about Santa Claus? Tell one.
  2. Why do you think the poet chose to give "Saint Nick" reindeer, instead of horses, mules, or other animals?
  3. Make a list of some of the "magic" elements of the story. How do these compare with our everyday lives? Is there a need for "magical" stories today?

Creative Projects

  1. Write your own story about "a visit from St. Nicholas." Make it any style you want: funny, scary, sweet, etc.
  2. Choose a scene from the poem and make a drawing or painting of it.
  3. Create your own little play (either a "radio play"--audio only--or "theater play") that portrays the action of this poem (or an original story of your own) and record it.

Share your writing, artwork, or performance with me! And let me know if I can share it with others. Use the contact form at the bottom of the page, or post it as a comment here or on one of my social media accounts.


1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Vocabulary Exercise: 1. sleigh; 2. chimney; 3. in a twinkling; 4. ere; 5. lawn; 6. dimples