My Annual and Very Helpful Deconstruction of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been invited by several broadcasters to read what they called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” on some kind of pre-Yuletide show.

I’ve agreed each time–but only if I could do it my way. And this is the way I do it. And every year a re-post this deconstruction as a fun way to celebrate the holidays.  (Haters: It’s a JOKE! LIGHTEN UP!)

Beware:  beyond here lay dragons that be slayed.

The first thing I do with these various broadcasters is correct them on the title.  The actual name of this poem is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is what Clement Clarke Moore called it when it was published anonymously in a newspaper in The Sentinal in Troy, New York, on December 23, 1823.

Moore he considered himself to be a serious academic and was afraid that if this composition were to be credited to him, people would think he was a hack. The coward.

And no wonder he wanted to keep his identity a secret.  “Vist” describes a nighttime break-in by an all-seeing, all-knowing religious zealot who is apparently committed to both a redistribution of wealth and commodity fetishism, thereby foreshadowing both the principles of Marxism and modern day consumerism.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before we begin, make sure that no children see this post.  It will scar them for life.  Like I said, here be dragons and they don’t make it out alive.



“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore

Actually, we only think it was him.  There are two or three other people who might have written this thing.  But we’ll give that commie, Clement Clarke Moore, the benefit of the doubt.

I should also point out that at the time this poem was written, we were still decades away from the modern notion of Christmas.  In fact, most Protestant groups in the United States thought that the idea of gift-giving on Christmas as vulgar. In the early days of the American colonies, anyone caught celebrating Christmas or even mentioning St. Nicholas was subject to a fine of five shillings.  

Georgia didn’t get around making Christmas a legal holiday until 1836.  For the rest of the country, Christmas was just another day up until the 1860s.  This is why the poem (written in 1823, remember) is set on Christmas Eve—to get around the fanatical evangelicals. Again, look it up.

Furthermore, this poem—and whatever Charles Dickens dreamed up in A Christmas Carol—our modern idea of Christmas was born.  So let’s not be thinking that what we know as Christmas is some grand tradition centuries and centuries old.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

This is clearly fantasy, because anyone who has ever had mice in the house knows that the little buggers spend all night messing stuff up.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

Let’s forget for a second that the real St. Nicholas died 1,477 years before the time and place of this poem.  His bones are in a church in Bari, Italy.  I know because I was there last summer.

The idea of a Santa Claus-like creature actually goes back to sometime around 270 AD when a wealthy farming couple named Epyhanus and Johane had a baby boy.  This was a bit weird since they’d already been married thirty years and for a woman to give birth in what must have been her early 50s was unusual.  If that’s really what happened.

Baby Nicholas grew up and went into the priesthood and made a bishop at a very young age.  Then he died sometime around his 45th birthday.  

Seven hundred years later, his bones ended up in Italy.  He was proclaimed a saint and got himself that church. Then, for some reason, French nuns began to give gifts to each in Nicholas’ name every December 5–NOT December 25, you’ll notice.

St. Nicholas didn’t have a long white beard until he somehow got screwed up with the pagan god Odin in the 1300s who had a reputation of riding through the skies, leading souls to heaven each December 21l  His mount was a freakishly deformed eight-legged horse, not eight tiny reindeer.

Basically, this portrayal of Saint Nicholas sets the template for the Santa Claus we know today.  And the dude creeps me out.  “He knows when you are sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows when you’ve been bad or good”…Who is this omniscient being that’s monitoring our behaviour in ways far beyond what the law allows?  Jeezus, and you thought Facebook was bad.

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;

First of all, no one wants a sugar plum for breakfast anymore than I want another pair of black socks. And second, kerchiefs and caps?  Obviously, this is long before Victoria’s Secret and La Senza.  

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.

So our guy wakes up when he hears something outside.  He’s the only one who sees and hears what happens while the wife and kid sleep.  Personally, I think this is strong evidence that our narrator had too much grog that night.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

This is astronomical crap.  On December 24, 1823, the moon was well into its waning phase, just a day short of last quarter.  It couldn’t have possibly cast this kind of light.  Look it up.

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick.

We have an inconsistency here.  Why would the fat guy and his posse stop on the lawn when the he’s just going to have to move everything to the roof?

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

Now pay attention to this.  Here’s the first written documentation of the names of these magical flying reindeer.

“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!”

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet and Cupid:  that’s all cool.  But we have a translation problem with Donder and Blitzen.  In the 1823 version, they’re called “Dunder and Blixem,” which are the Dutch spellings of “thunder and lightning”    Someone changed them to Donder and Blitzen, the German spellings, in 1844.  And since German has changed a bit since them, we call #7 “Donner.”  

Notice, too, that there is no Rudolph in this story.  His freaky glowing nose didn’t show up until 1939 when a department store chain decided that they needed a reindeer they could portray as a social outcast-turned-hero.  I’m not sure what the message is in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—you’re unpopular with your peers until you’re proven that you can save everyone’s ass? Maybe we’ll deconstruct that one next year.

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 Saint Nicholas, too.

Architecturally, I have a problem with this.  You’re telling me that a roof built in the 1820s (at the latest) can hold a fat guy, a sled full of toys and eight presumably full-grown reindeer, which, in case you want to look it up, bulk up to about 200 pounds each by December.  So that’s 1,600 pounds of reindeer, plus the fat guy, plus the sleigh, plus the toys.  If that landed on my roof, they’d been in the basement in about two seconds.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound.

This, clearly, is a case of breaking and entering.  I don’t care if you have “Saint” before your name.  You enter a house uninvited by any other means than by the door and you’re a burglar.  And the chimney?  C’mon.  In the 1820s, it would have been full of soot and raccoons and grease and other nasty stuff.  And usually, there’d be a fire smouldering to keep the house warm at night because it’s the only source of heat in the place.  So if fat dude didn’t get smoke inhalation, he would have burned his ass when he hit the hearth.

And why enter through the chimney in the first place?  Another pagan myth mix-up involving Odin, apparently. 

Notice, too, that there’s no reference to this dude coming from the North Pole.  It wasn’t until sometime around 1860 that Harper’s Bazaar magazine codified this little “fact.”

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.

Like I said earlier, this is the precursor image to the modern Santa Claus.  In the 1915, a company called White Rock Beverages launched a Christmas ad campaign and used the guy in this poem as a template.  That’s right:  modern Santa wasn’t a creation of the Coca-Cola Company.   It was a company that sold mineral water and ginger ale.  They took his White Stripes-like colour scheme from the cover of a magazine called Puck that appeared about fifteen years ealier.  

Coke didn’t really get into Santa until the 1930s and preserved his Jack White-approved costume which, of course, are the company’s colours. The look of the Santa we have today is largely based on those Coke ads.

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.

Is it just me, or does he sound like a rubbie?  What would you do if someone like this showed up unannounced in your kitchen in the middle of the night?  Frying pan to the back of the head, that’s what.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

So he smokes while breaks in?  That’s just rude.  I betcha he used the bathroom, too, and forgot to flush.  And let’s not forget that he’s already tracking in snow, racoon shit, ashes and soot.

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

Two words:  Morbidly obese.  

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

Someone has just broken into your house in the middle of the night by sliding down the chimney and you’re laughing?  Dude:  You ARE drunk.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

Wikipedia describes this encounter as “a conspiratorial moment.”

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, (The secret sign for “Say a word and I’ll stick a shiv in your guts.)

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

“Rose?”  Like levitated?  Did he climb up?  Or did he have rocket boots or something?

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

Here’s where the laws of physics break down.  Assuming that the surface of the earth is 1014 square metres and he’s contracted to deliver toys to 2 billion children in 800 million households around the planet, St. Nick would have to travel over the course of one night approximately 160 million kilometres, powered only by reindeer.  To even come close to accomplishing this (plus sliding up and down chimneys and eating all the cookies and milk laid out for him), St. Nick would have to travel no slower than 99.7% of the speed of light at any point in the journey. 

This, of course, is an Einsteinian impossibility, especially when one considers the relativistic effects of near light-speed on mass and momentum.  Sorry, kids:  science just proved that Santa is a fake.  Even Stewie and Brian gave up when they subbed for Santa on that episode of Family Guy.

Yet there are people who still try to explain all this away by bending the laws of physics or invoking “magic” or some such folderol.  Give it up.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

So what have we learned?  Not much, really, other than Clement Clarke Moore was probably smoking something when he invented flying reindeer and didn’t bother to check the almanac to see if there really was a bright moon that night.  He obviously didn’t know about relativity (we’ll give him that one since Einstein wasn’t even born when he wrote this poem).  And for some reason, it tought we’d all find it charming that this smoking burglar would track soot all over the house.

Just remember that if anyone tries to break into your place this Christmas, remember that they’re probably there to take stuff, not leave you presents. 

Still, Merry Christmas to you all and a Happy New Year.  Glad to be of service.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38452 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “My Annual and Very Helpful Deconstruction of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”

  • Alan, you should totally record this and post it to your youtube channel.

  • Hilarious. I love it.
    And yes, please do Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer next. Also, Frosty the Snowman.
    Incidentally, in Latin America they have El Pastor Aleman. Which translates to, The German Shepherd. Not the dog, the guy tending the flock.


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