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Twas the night before Christmas' helped make the modern Santa –

  • If you picture Santa Claus as plump and jolly and pulled by reindeer, you may have this poem to thank. Clement Clark Moore/New-York Historical Society

    The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known by its opening line “‘Twas the Night before Christmas,” has a special place among Christmas traditions, right alongside hot chocolate, caroling and bright lights. It has also inspired the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man sporting red and a round belly.

     

    But this poem has been steeped in controversy, and debate still looms over who the true author is. Traditionally, Clement C. Moore – a 19th-century scholar at the General Theological Seminary in New York, where I work as a reference librarian – has been credited with writing the poem in 1822 for his children. Every December, library staff shares our multiple copies of the poem in an exhibit to celebrate the holiday season.

    If you picture Santa Claus as plump and jolly and pulled by reindeer, you may have this poem to thank. Clement Clark Moore/New-York Historical Society

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    The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known by its opening line “‘Twas the Night before Christmas,” has a special place among Christmas traditions, right alongside hot chocolate, caroling and bright lights. It has also inspired the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man sporting red and a round belly.

     But this poem has been steeped in controversy, and debate still looms over who the true author is. Traditionally, Clement C. Moore – a 19th-century scholar at the General Theological Seminary in New York, where I work as a reference librarian – has been credited with writing the poem in 1822 for his children. Every December, library staff shares our multiple copies of the poem in an exhibit to celebrate the holiday season.

    In Victorian Britain, Christmas became a festive holiday, with much feasting and drinking in addition to a religious celebration. In the early 19th century, Santa was sometimes depicted as a reveler from the lower classes – someone in need of charity, rather than a gift-giver himself.

     
     

    As Christmas began to evolve into a family holiday, the image of Santa changed as well. Now, his jolliness came from the Christmas spirit, not feasting, and his rosy cheeks were the result of joy, not alcohol.

     

    “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” was instrumental in crafting the modern American version of Santa Claus. The poem describes St. Nicholas as “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,” with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, a snow white beard and a round belly. Throughout the poem, Santa is depicted as a jolly elf bringing joy with his reindeer-led sleigh to both children and adults.

    Thomas Nast, a Civil War-era cartoonist with the magazine Harper’s Weekly, created the enduring image of Santa Claus in a series of 33 drawings published between 1863 and 1886. The first of these drawings is inspired by the poem’s depiction of Santa carrying a sack full of presents with his sled pulled by reindeer.

     
     
     
     
     
     

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