A couple of years ago, my parents gave us two beautiful Robert Sabuda pop-up books for Christmas, The 12 Days of Christmas (above) and The Night Before Christmas. They’re both full of the charm, wit and quality associated with Sabuda’s work - a silver fork poking out of the goose pie for six geese a-laying, the charging reindeer coming in to land in the famous Christmas poem - but reading them four or five times a day, as I must throughout each December, I’m struck by a fresh thought: Clement Clarke Moore’s poem is terrible.
Some of this may come from the lack of emotional connection I have to it - it’s much more of an American thing, and I really only came to know of it through US films and TV programmes, while the 12 days has been sung to my kids from mid-September each year since they were born, and I’ve sung it countless times every year since I was a tiny youth - and some from the countless dire parodies littering the airwaves each festive season, but it’s really, truly dreadful.
Let’s take it step by step.
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
Fine. Crummy rhyming effort there (WITH CARE… BE THERE reminds me of the firework poems we all had to crank out when we were seven or so (IN THE SKY… UP SO HIGH)), but this is a children’s poem and sometimes you just need to suck it up.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
Why can’t these lines scan properly? And why is it “a long winter’s nap”? Is it because children famously sleep in so long on Christmas morning? But I’m sure Pam Ayres has already hilariously parodied this aspect, so I’m backing away. Here’s where it really starts to crumble.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the luster of midday to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
Why is the author mistaking perspective for size? They aren’t REALLY tiny, are they? If someone sees something in the distance, they don’t say, “Hey, your mother’s just turned into our street - but something’s wrong… SHE’S TINY OMGGGGG AAAAAAHHHHHHH!” Why is he insistent on the sleigh being miniature? It’s just not directly in front of your face, you fool.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
How he can tell how quick and lively the driver is when he’s in miniature (and, I’m guessing, still some distance away) is, frankly, beyond me. And what’s more famously and colloquially swift than an eagle? Plus, those names are stupid. [Insert lazy Ian Hislop joke about the Jolie-Pitt children here.]
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
This is where I start getting really angry. This is a Christmas poem, set in a country where there’s “new fallen snow”. It’s cold, a little damp, I suppose, and from the “luster of midday” it seems very still, very quiet. So WHY, in the name of ALL that is POETIC, would Moore choose the imagery of dry leaves in a wild hurricane? This isn’t chaos, it’s magic. It’s not an out of control, hot, dead time, it’s a moment of jingling bells and flying deer. Jesus Christ. This surely wins some kind of Bulwer-Lytton award for Terrible and Erroneous Imagery.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
OK. So everything is still little, is it? Although that may explain how St. N gets down the chimney in “a bound”. But drew in your hand from what? And how did you see him bound down the chimney? Through your roof periscope?
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
Hey, Clement. I think that guy covered in soot and ashes climbing into your house might just be a peddler.
His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
Ugh. These two paragraphs sum up everything that’s wrong with Christmas sentiment. His cheeks “like roses” (absurd). His droll little mouth. His belly that shakes when he laughs (Moore is guessing, since we don’t actually see him do more than drawing up his mouth) but is also little. Just like his sleigh.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
Why did you laugh “in spite of” yourself? Is a wink all it takes? Actually I get that. I’ll allow it.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
Turned “with a jerk”? What a lovely physical motion to employ when you’ve just crept into someone’s house. More jerking and nodding in silence, please, St. Nicholas. Thx. He could have gone “straight to his task” and then “raised a flask”? Or “on to his purpose” then “wiped down the surface”? Think, Moore, think.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!"
It’s a lovely cry, a call to Children everywhere, one that is used beautifully in my new favourite Christmas book, The Empty Stocking. But again, that imagery. At least he’s got the colour right, this time - downy thistle is in fact white, and reminiscent of the winter season. But it’s also completely uncontrollable: anyone who’s ever blown one will know these seeds go anywhere they choose. But aren’t those teeny-weeny reindeer harnessed firmly to their microscopic sleigh? At the very least, aren’t they all flying in one direction? Isn’t someone in control of this thing?
Merry Christmas to all, etc.