Picturing Santa Claus: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Volume 1 (Day 5 of 25 Days of Christmas)


25 Days of Christmas

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, or A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore is my favorite Christmas poem. I love reading the book in all the various editions and listening to the recording of the poem read or sung out loud during the weeks before Christmas. Written in 1823, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is definitely a Christmas classic. However, many modern readers do not know that the Santa Claus described in the poem is vastly different from our contemporary imagining of the mythical figure.

Written in 1823, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas describes St. Nicholas somewhat differently from the Coca Cola or Tim Allen version of Santa Claus:

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.

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!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!

St. Nicholas wears not a bright red suit with snow white trim but rather more working class garb similar to a peddler that is covered in ashes and soot from sliding down dirty chimneys. He is still jolly and chubby with a white beard, but he is smaller and more elf-like than the more imposing modern version of Santa Claus. Although many of the characteristics ascribed to our Santa Claus come from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, a few key features have evolved over the years.

While reading various versions of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in anticipation of the holidays, my daughter and I paid special attention to the imaginings of Santa in each book. Here are some of our favorite versions of the poem and my thoughts on each St. Nicholas.

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith (1912)

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912) with illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith features the classic drawings from the illustrator famous for her work in Ladies Home Journal and other magazines as well as a number of children’s books. The Jessie Willcox Smith edition of the poem is often considered the classic version. The illustrations of St. Nicholas very closely follow the description in the poem. He is wearing a dark fur suit covered in gray soot. He is short and squat and much more elf-like than modern incarnations. Most notably, the St. Nicholas in the Jessie Willcox Smith edition completely lacks the bright red suit of modern Santas.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912) 1 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912) 2

Illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010)

The Night Before Christmas (2010) with illustrations by Robert Ingpen features a modern interpretation of the classic holiday poem that still manages to remain true to the description in the text. St. Nicholas dons a red suit with white fur trim. However, the white is visibly dirty, reflecting the description of ashes and soot. This St. Nicholas is shorter and elf-like, especially in his face, which is wrinkled and slightly smushed while still possessing cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry.

The Night Before Christmas (2010) 1 The Night Before Christmas (2010) 2

Illustrated by Gennady Spirin (2006)

The Night Before Christmas (2006) with illustrations by Gennady Spirin offers a very modern version of St. Nicholas that more closely resembles Santa Claus. Much taller and heftier than the elf-like man in other retellings, this St. Nick wears a bright red suit. True to the text of the poem, however, his suit is covered in gray chimney dust. However, he is much more man (kind of like a jolly old grandfather) than an elf-like peddler.

The Night Before Christmas (2006) 1 The Night Before Christmas (2006) 2

Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1976)

The Night Before Christmas (1976) with illustrations by Arthur Rackham features the work of another famous illustrator. Within all his work, Rackham strove to remain true to the text, and The Night Before Christmas reflects this steadfastness to an author’s meeting. St. Nicholas is an elf-like man in a long red fur coat. Although he is not covered in ashes and soot, his face smiles with a slight mischievousness.

The Night Before Christmas (1976) 1 The Night Before Christmas (1976) 2

Illustrated by Anita Lobel (1984)

The Night Before Christmas (1984) with illustrations by Anita Lobel also features another extremely contemporary incarnation of Santa Claus. Dress in a red suit with snow white trim, this St. Nicholas lacks the ashes and soot of the original text. He is, however, slightly elf-like in his facial features and expressions.

The Night Before Christmas (1984) 1 The Night Before Christmas (1984) 2

Illustrated by James Marshall (1985)

The Night Before Christmas (1985) with illustrations by James Marshall features a rather comical version of Santa Claus wearing starred cowboy boots. However, true to the original text, this St. Nicholas descends the chimney and becomes covered in ashes and soot. His facial features also accurately reflect the original poem.

The Night Before Christmas (1985) 1 The Night Before Christmas (1985) 2

Do you have a favorite version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas?

Image Credits

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (2010) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (2010) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (2006) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (2006) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1976) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1976) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1984) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1984) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1985) 1 © 2013 Heather Johnson
The Night Before Christmas (1985) 2 © 2013 Heather Johnson



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