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The Night Before Christmas

November 25, 2005 through January 8, 2006


(above: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), 'Twas the Night before Christmas, ca. 1912, ink and watercolor on illustration board, 12 7/8 x 17 7/8 inches. Collection of the Brandywine River Museum)

Clement C. Moore's poem The Night Before Christmas has long kindled the imaginations of children and adults alike. For many, reading the poem is a holiday tradition that celebrates the much anticipated appearance of Santa Claus. This year, from November 25, 2005 through January 8, 2006, the Brandywine River Museum presents The Night Before Christmas, an exhibition examining many artistic interpretations of the famous poem. It features paintings, prints, drawings and other imagery from the 1800s to the modern day. Included are works by Thomas Nast, Everett Shinn, N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith and many others.

Moore, an eminent scholar and professor of Oriental and Greek literature, wrote The Night Before Christmas in 1822 for his children. He never intended to publish it. If not for Harriet Butler, a friend of the Moore family, the poem may have existed only within the family home.

Harriet Butler of Troy, New York, was visiting the Moore family over the holiday season and copied the poem. The following year, she gave it to Orville L. Holley, the editor of her hometown newspaper, The Troy Sentinel. Holley published the poem anonymously, perhaps to prevent Moore, the author of many scholarly works, any embarrassment over a poem that seemed so frivolous. Holley also provided the poem's title, An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. The work was an instant success, and Holley reprinted it during successive holiday seasons at the request of his readers. As the popularity of Moore's poem spread, it appeared in almanacs, anthologies, magazines and in other newspapers. Amazingly, it was not printed in book form until 1848, 26 years after being written.

The first exclusive book edition was published by Henry M. Onderdonk of New York and illustrated with woodcuts by T.C. Boyd. Boyd's St. Nicholas bears little resemblance to the red-suited, exuberant Santa Claus of today. Boyd depicted a rather diminutive figure in knee breeches, buckle shoes, and a fur hat. Boyd's Santa is so small that he stands on a chair to fill the children's stockings, and his head barely reaches a doorknob.

In the years following Onderdonk's publication, many artists illustrated Moore's poem and, although all looked to the poem for inspiration, their interpretations of Santa differ greatly. Some portrayed Santa in the costume of England's Father Christmas, the Netherlands' Sinterklaas, or Germany's Belsh-Nichel. When such early editions were printed in color, Santa's clothes are not only red, but blue, brown, green and even yellow. The development and subsequent standardization of our modern Santa Claus resulted from the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast. (right: Thomas Nast (1840-1902), 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse [1876]. Artists proof, collection of Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, Morristown, NJ.)

Thomas Nast worked for Harper's Weekly where he depicted political events with a wry, biting humor. During the holiday season, however, Nast turned to a more pleasant topic, Christmas. His festive scenes were extremely popular and were eventually published in a children's book. The publisher, McLoughlin Brothers, wanted to print the illustrations in color, and that created a dilemma for Nast who was accustomed to working in black ink. Although Nast had envisioned Santa as wearing a tan fur suit, he was compelled to create colorful illustrations. His solution was to dress Santa in an eye-catching red suit edged with brilliant white fur. This defining image influences artists' renditions of Santa Claus to this very day.

During this holiday season, the Brandywine River Museum celebrates the tradition and excellence of American illustration within the context of this classic poem.




The Night Before Christmas

by Clement C. Moore


'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 down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the 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 the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it 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, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,

So up to the house-top 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 hand, 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 peddler 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 of 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 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;

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."

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Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.