Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

When I was little, I had an oversized version of this poem, a book shaped like Santa, the cover fuzzy where his red suit was and filled with lavish watercolor illustrations. Despite the packaging, I still didn’t care for it, probably because there wasn’t enough about animals in it. As an adult, I have friendlier feelings towards it, at least I thought I did until I began this review.
The actual poem has a controversial provenance; it’s usually attributed to Bible scholar Clement Moore, who first published it in a magazine in the early 1820‘s. But was actually known 15 years before as a story told by Henry Livingston to his family and neighbors. If you look at the other poems of Livingston, you can see the connection with the bouncy humorous tones compared to Moore’s sappy offerings. The hand written copy by Livingston would’ve set the matter to rest, had it not been destroyed by a fire in Wisconsin.
Whoever the author, the poem doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny and I know I’m risking a barrage of snowballs in pointing this out. We all know the basic story: on his way to bed, a father sees Santa landing on his roof and coming down the chimney to leave presents. It was pivotal in changing the image of Santa Claus to someone “chubby and plump”, as befitting the future land of McDonald’s, rather than the tall, slim father Christmas of Europe. There’s also the mention of Santa’s face being very red. Is it from the cold or too much alcohol? He’s “dressed all in fur” (PETA alert!) and “covered in soot”, yet walks all around the living room depositing gifts, ignoring the damage he’s doing to the carpet. You just know Dad isn’t going to clean that up before going back to bed.
My main problem is the author’s fixation on the size of Santa and his team, he uses the word “little” several times to describe the visitor. And he claims Santa is driving “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer”. Reindeer aren’t Shetland ponies, they are the size of cows! And how can a small sleigh carry all those toys? Is this insinuating that Santa is a leprechuan? If everything is so tiny, how can “the prancing and pawing of each little hoof” on the roof be heard? How anyone can call the cloven hooves of reindeer ‘tiny’ defies belief.
Much is made of the noise that Santa makes, whistling and shouting at the reindeer, instructing them where to land, then yelling the famous farewell, etc. yet no ones sugarplum dreams are disturbed. Only the father sees everything. Is he dreaming or hallucinating? There’s the slight paranoia too, where Dad has been welcoming Santa into his home, but suddenly needs reassurance that “he had nothing to dread”, as if Santa might be a burglar after all. Could our narrator have been imbibing something other than hot cocoa before bed?
And Santa has no notions of safety, coming down the chimney with a lit pipe “held tight in his teeth”. Doesn’t he know how easily a spark could set the cresote lining the chimney aflame? Was Santa’s motto “live dangerously”? It’s so at odds with his PR campaign.
So there you have it, proof there’s more to this poem than the party game of guessing reindeer names. A delusional dad, a shrinking sleigh and mini caribou, a messy intruder and a family who will have to deal with it all in the morning.

To read the entire poem with your newfound insights, go

9 comments on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

  1. Kirsty
    December 22, 2008

    This has just reminded me of the picture book I had of this when I was little. All the characters were drawn as mice, and I loved it. I wonder where my copy went?

  2. Kirsty
    December 22, 2008

    Also: people would be less likely to hear mice as they landed on rooftops. Actually, perhaps not, if the houses are mouse-sized…

    I may be thinking about this too much.

  3. Moira
    December 22, 2008

    My theory is that Santa’s sack is actually the gateway to a rift in the space-time continuum … which is why he can haul all that junk and ticky-tacky out of it ad nauseam.

  4. Lisa
    December 23, 2008

    Oh, Jackie . . . *wipes away tear of laughter* I was expecting me to be the bookfox shattering the magic of Christmas, not you! I can’t bring myself to click the link and read the poem now. Nope. Magic gone.

    P.S Santa dressed all in fur? Fur? And he’s the one deciding who’s naughty and nice? Hmmm.

  5. kirstyjane
    December 23, 2008

    Oh, Jackie, this is hilarious!!!

  6. Melinda
    December 26, 2008

    “He’s …“covered in soot”, yet walks all around the living room depositing gifts, ignoring the damage he’s doing to the carpet. You just know Dad isn’t going to clean that up before going back to bed.”

    This is why it’s the dad that’s awake in the story. If it had been the mom, the poem would’ve ended at this point ’cause Santa would’ve been stabbed to death with a candy cane, stuffed into that big red sack and dragged out to the curb!

  7. Kay
    December 26, 2008

    There went all my holiday illusions, up in an explosion of soot. Very witty and something I never examined …. in all these years.

  8. BillV
    January 5, 2009

    Never knew the poem had Santa visiting and spreading second hand smoke about the house with his pipe.

  9. bookchildworld
    January 10, 2009

    This is brilliant! So true – how could I never have seen it before?

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This entry was posted on December 22, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: children's, Poetry: Humorous, Poetry: children's and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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