‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore
Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith
Houghton Mifflin Company 2005 (1912)
Classics; Picture Book; Children’s Fiction
I had never read this before, I’m pretty sure – we certainly never had a copy in our house nor any pre-Christmas tradition of reading it, nothing like that. Probably my primary school had an old copy but I don’t think I was too interested. So this was a new reading experience for me, one I approached without any memories or sense of nostalgia to guide me. I got it because it’s such a classic, and I believe it’s the origin of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer (which are named), though don’t quote me on that.
I decided to get the original edition – I love the old style of illustrations and I didn’t want anything changed or edited. It’s a classic, after all! What I found was a really delightful poem that carries with it a great sense of expectation, anticipation and atmosphere, far more than I would expect, and the descriptions had that Narnia quality – it’s the only word I can think to describe it, but basically I mean the way things looked in an age gone by, an older period that’s nostalgic to us now.
It’s not the children who discover St. Nicholas, but their father, who is woken by the “clatter” of a sleigh and eight small reindeer, who waits for him to exit the chimney. I love the descriptions of Saint Nick, some of which I’ve included here, followed by their accompanying illustrations:
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 [sic] just opening his pack.
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 bowlful 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;
I’m not sure how much of our current Santa mythology comes from this poem – I’ll have to wait to find out when I read Gerry Bowler’s Santa: A Biography later on – but whether it started anything or not, it’s certainly played a big part in immortalising it all. Little has changed since this was published in 1912 – really the only thing different is that Santa was later dressed in Coca Cola colours for their own marketing, something we’ve been stuck with ever since. Another reason why I wanted the original, pre-Coca Cola illustrations.
This was a truly delightful read, in a purely nostalgic sense, and while I may not have grown up with it as a kid, it manages to bring back that sense of excitement and wonder and make you feel like a bit of a kid again, which is always a good feeling.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Charles E Reasoner
Running Press Kids 2008
I wanted a board book version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and this was the only one I could find at the time. It’s not quite what I expected, but then I hadn’t looked up any reviews of it first. The thick board pages aren’t square but bumpy around the top and sides, and the very first page is a narrow flap on the front of the book that at first I completely missed. The pages have windows cut out of them as well, so that you can see through to the next page.
It’s set inside a large house, and shows mice preparing for Christmas and fooling around, then going to bed and waking up to Santa’s presents. The text is brief and reads, in its entirety (including the title of the book):
‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Nothing was quiet,
not one single mouse!
Sure they were trying with little success,
but upstairs and downstairs the house was a mess!
There were cookies to bake and lights to be strewn.
Santa was coming and would be here soon!
At last all was ready! They went to their beds,
with visions of crackers and cheese in their heads!
But awoke when a voice called out jolly and bright:
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
The illustrations are very busy, there’s a lot of detail and little speech bubbles here and there give the mice voices. It’s a good one for little kids to “read” (look at, pore over) for themselves, though the minimal text makes it less fun for an adult to read.
There’s also a Three Blind Mice book that follows the same cut-away/cut-out format – the cover even looks a lot like this one.