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“'Twas the Night Before Christmas…”

The history of nineteenth and early twentieth century American children's literature would be incomplete without recognizing the significant impact Clement Clarke Moore’s poem has had on the culture. Legend has it that on a Christmas Eve Moore was sent by his wife to retrieve one more turkey needed to fill Christmas baskets that were being assembled for the poor, a Moore family custom. When Moore was returning from his short journey, the tinkling bells on the sleigh the horse was pulling caused an idea to germinate. Upon arriving home, Moore found his children filled with anticipation of the visit from St. Nicholas. Surveying the scene, Moore excused himself, promising his children he would return with a surprise (Marshall xx).

Moore reappeared several hours later with his poem in hand. It was then that Clement Clarke Moore recited the poem privately to his family on Christmas Eve in 1822, as his six children surrounded him. The legend of the St. Nicholas the gift giver had been around for hundreds of years, but it was Moore’s creation that delivered a purely American “take” on Christmas (Marshall xx).

The poem’s popularity evolved. It was first published the following year in the Troy, New York, newspaper. A neighbor of the Moores’ had been visiting the night he read the poem, and she had copied it into her album. The neighbor, Miss Harriet Butler, took her copy to the Troy Sentinel where it was published for the first time in 1823, and it continued to be so year after year. Slowly but surely, other newspapers and almanacs picked the poem up and published it, followed by magazines, books, and anthologies (Marshall xxi).

The 1870 edition of Moore’s poem, featured here, was published by the McLoughlin Brothers and illustrated by Thomas Nast, the illustrator best known for his early editorial cartoons. The first illustration Nast created of Santa Claus was in an issue of Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Nast’s illustration was the first to depict St. Nicholas as a “jolly old elf.”

The book contains six full-page chromolithographs and six black/white illustrations. This issue was part of the Aunt Louisa’s Big Picture Series, and the back cover displays other titles available in the series. The Nast illustration on the front cover shows St. Nicholas from his belt up. He has a long-stemmed pipe in his hand, a spring of holly on his fur-trimmed hat, and a pack on his back. It is interesting to note that Nast also included an American flag (Marshall 22).

The de Grummond Collection’s of McLoughlin Brothers papers contain manuscripts, typescripts, galleys, correspondence, photographs, dummies, illustrations, color separations, proofs, and production material dating from 1854 to the early 1950s. The material is organized into six series: scrapbook, books, unidentified illustrations, miscellaneous production materials, correspondence, and publisher catalog materials.

Also contained in the de Grummond Collection is a single ink illustration for a New Year cartoon from 1885 by Thomas Nast. Although best known for his political cartoons, Nast also illustrated several children's books during the 1860s, most notably Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas (1870).

To view this item, you may visit Room 305 of McCain Library and Archives. It can be found in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection (PZ8.3.M782 Vi 1869).

Works cited:

Marshall, Nancy H. The Night Before Christmas: A Descriptive Bibliography of Clement Clarke Moore’s Immortal Poem: With Editions from 1823 through 2000. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll, 2002.

University of North Carolina Library, Rare Book Collections. A Christmas Exhibition of the Kellam Collection: Presenting Clement C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979

Text by Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection