‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse
When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.
Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.
In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.
However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.
And this is the power of poetry.
To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.
The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.
The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.
Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.
And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.
If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.
And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.
And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.