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Literature / 'Twas the Night Before Christmas

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https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/a_visit_from_st_nicholas_thomas_nast.jpg
Illustration from an 1864 edition by Thomas Nast.

'Twas the night before Christmas,
When all thro' the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse...
—The poem's opening lines
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Originally titled (and also known as) A Visit from St. Nicholas, this 1823 poem — first published anonymously but eventually attributed to the American Episcopalian scholar Clement Clarke Moore — is about one household's, well, visit from St. Nicholas.

A perennial favorite for Christmastime reading, the poem is considered the Trope Codifier for a lot of the popular imagery of Santa Claus, up to and including his reindeer and their names. As such an iconic work, it has also been parodied and spoofed enough to merit its own trope: The Parody Before Christmas.

Here it is as read by none other than the trumpet master Louis Armstrong, himself.


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The poem contains the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The poem crystallizes a number of ideas about St. Nicholas first found in Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History of New York.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: The archaic word "ere" (meaning "before") is sometimes updated to "as", despite that changing the meaning a bit.
  • Big Fun: St. Nicholas has "a broad face, and a little round belly / That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
  • Bilingual Bonus: Santa's last pair of reindeer are named Donner and Blitzen, German for "thunder" and "lightning", respectively.
  • Chariot Pulled by Cats: Santa Claus flies around on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, an image that has endured in the Santa Claus mythos.
  • Christmas Elves: St Nick himself is described as an 'elf' here, making this debatably the Ur-Example.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: It has elements that were dropped for later versions of the Santa Mythology:
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    • St Nick's described as being an elf himself here, whereas most later adaptations of Santa appear to be a human who employs a rather gnomish race of elf seemingly unique to the North Pole.
    • He's said to "dress in all fur, from his head to his foot," whereas modern Santa wears a bright red overcoat with white trimmings. When was the last time you saw an animal with bright red fur?
    • His sleigh and reindeer are described as "miniature" and "tiny" respectively, whereas with modern Santa they're almost universally depicted as normal-sized.
    • The sleigh doesn't fly in this poem; rather it's pulled on the ground until it reaches the house, at which point it levitates to the roof.
    • Also, Rudolph is of course not present, this work having been written more than a century prior to his introduction.
    • St Nick actually originally said "happy Christmas to all" in the original version.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The original publication contained the line "The moon, on the breast of the newfallen snow..." In later printings this tends to get bowdlerised to "crest."
  • Hollywood Darkness: Played with. "The moon on the crest of the newfallen snow / Gave a lustre of midday to objects below."
  • Santa Claus: You were expecting maybe the Easter Bunny?
  • Secret Message Wink: "A wink of his eye and a twist of his head / Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread." St. Nick's wink to the narrator lets him know that although the situation seems strange and even supernatural, he means no harm.
  • Smoking Is Cool: "The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth / And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath." Of course, modern depictions of Santa don't usually smoke.
  • Title Confusion: The poem was originally called A Visit from St. Nicholas, but its opening line is what everyone knows it by.
  • Trope Codifier: As stated above, this little poem etched in stone a lot of the core image we have of Santa Claus.
  • Unbuilt Trope: While most of the poem's depiction of Santa still matches the popular imagery, the idea of him as an "elf" with a "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer" fell out of favor a long time ago.
  • White-Tailed Reindeer: The Ur-Example, predating the Trope Codifier Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by over a century. The reindeer are described as "tiny" despite real life reindeer being anything but.

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