- The Night Before Christmas redirects here. For the short story by Nikolai Gogol, see Christmas Eve.
"A Visit from St. Nicholas" (often referred to and sometimes published as "The Night Before Christmas" or "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") is an American poem which was first published anonymously in the December 23, 1823 edition of the Troy, New York Sentinel newspaper. In the poem, the narrator describes being woken up on Christmas Eve while his wife and children are sleeping. He sees Santa Claus (a character who is referred to as "St. Nicholas' or "Saint Nick" throughout the poem) arrive outside his house. He watches as St. Nicholas enters the house and leaves presents.
The poem is usually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a theologian and Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at what is now Columbia University, although Moore's authorship has been disputed. The poem was first credited to Moore in the December 25, 1837 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier newspaper. Moore himself finally claimed authorship of "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" when it was included in an 1844 anthology of his poetry. According to tradition, Moore was hesitant to admit to having written the poem because he feared that it would damage his reputation as a serious author of scholarly works.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was published in several slightly different versions during Moore's lifetime. Textual variations continue to exist in modern versions. For example, words which are considered archaic or potentially offensive are changed (the word "breast" is often changed to "crest"). The poem's final line of "Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!" is often changed to "Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight!"
The modern image of Santa Claus largely stems from "A Visit from St. Nicholas", Americans had no clear and consistent notion of what Santa Claus was like before the poem was published. Generally accepted notions of Santa Claus' physical appearance and personality, his mode of transport and method of entering houses and the night on which he delivers presents were all popularized by the poem. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" presents Santa Claus as a cheerful plump man with a white beard who travels in a sleigh pulled by the reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen on the evening of December 24 and who enters houses by going down the chimney. The writer undoubtedly drew on the description of St. Nicholas which Washington Irving gave in his 1809 Knickerbocker's History of New York and also brought together various pre-existing folk traditions about the character.
The words of the poem have been set to music and performed by several different musicians. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is often referenced in movies, television and radio programs and is also frequently parodied.
On Christmas Eve, while his wife and children are sleeping, the poem's narrator is woken by a noise outside. Opening the window, he sees St. Nicholas in his sleigh pulled by reindeer on the lawn outside the house. He hears St. Nicholas call each of the reindeer by name. The reindeer then fly (or leap) to the roof of the house, taking the sleigh, its contents and St. Nicholas with them.
St. Nicholas enters the house through the chimney. The narrator sees him emerge from the fireplace and cannot help but laugh at the sight of the chubby little old man whose clothes are covered in ash and soot. By the look that he gives him, the narrator knows that St. Nicholas does not mind being laughed at and he need not worry about having done so. The two men do not speak to each other but the narrator watches as St. Nicholas puts presents in the stockings which are hanging by the fireplace. After St. Nicholas has finished his task, he places one finger to the side of his nose and nods his head, which causes him to leave the house by magically rising up the chimney again.
The narrator watches as St. Nicholas drives away from the house, hearing him shout, "Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!" before he disappears into the distance.
- Sound files of "A Visit from St. Nicholas":
- Public domain recording, originally from LibriVox (North American male reader)
- Public domain recording, originally from LibriVox (British male reader)
- Public domain recording, originally from Holiday Songs and Stories.com (North American male reader)
- De Night in de Front from Chreesmas (1926)
- The Night Before Halloween (1989)
- "Old Santeclaus with Much Delight" (1821)
- "A Letter from Santa Claus" (1875)
- The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902)
- "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" (1904)
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939)
- Father Christmas (1973)
- Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975)
- The Polar Express (1985)
- Winnie and Wilbur Meet Santa (2015)
- Santa's Husband (2017)
- 'A Visit from St. Nicholas" in American Sign Language
- The Night Before Christmas, 1905 silent movie from Thomas Edison's company loosely based on the poem
- Based on textual analysis, Professor Donald Wayne Foster of Vassar College, New York, has come to the conclusion that "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was written by Major Henry Livingston Jr. Livingston was a distant relative of Clement Clarke Moore's wife. His family have long claimed that he was the true author of the poem but Livingston does not appear to have claimed to have written it during his lifetime.
- In the earliest printed version of the poem from 1823, the last two reindeer are named as "Dunder" and "Blixem".
- At the time of the poem's first publication, it was more common in the United States to depict Santa Claus as delivering presents on the evening of December 25 or December 31. Many early re-printings of the poem changed the opening line from "'Twas the night before Christmas" to "'Twas the night before New Year".
- In Knickerbocker's History of New York, Washington Irving describes St. Nicholas as a little man who smokes a pipe, wears old-fashioned Dutch clothes and travels in a flying cart. Irving says that St. Nicholas used to frequently give presents to young and old alike throughout the year but now only brings gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day (December 6).
- The image of Santa Claus has continued to develop since "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published and, as a result, some of the poem may seem strange to modern readers. For example, the poem describes St. Nicholas as a little man who travels in a "miniature sleigh" pulled by "eight tiny reindeer". Santa Claus is also described in the poem as smoking a pipe, which would be very unusual today.
- The poem says that the reindeer "flew" but it is unclear if that means that the reindeer are capable of flying or simply if they move very quickly.