CHADDS FORD, PENNSYLVANIA.-Clement C. Moore's poem The Night Before Christmas has long kindled the imaginations of children and adults alike. For many, reading the poem is a holiday tradition that celebrates the much anticipated appearance of Santa Claus. This year, from November 25, 2005 through January 8, 2006, the Brandywine River Museum presents The Night Before Christmas, an exhibition examining many artistic interpretations of the famous poem. It features paintings, prints, drawings and other imagery from the 1800s to the modern day. Included are works by Thomas Nast, Everett Shinn, N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith and many others.
Moore, an eminent scholar and professor of Oriental and Greek literature, wrote The Night Before Christmas in 1822 for his children. He never intended to publish it. If not for Harriet Butler, a friend of the Moore family, the poem may have existed only within the family home.
Harriet Butler of Troy, New York, was visiting the Moore family over the holiday season and copied the poem. The following year, she gave it to Orville L. Holley, the editor of her hometown newspaper, The Troy Sentinel. Holley published the poem anonymously, perhaps to prevent Moore, the author of many scholarly works, any embarrassment over a poem that seemed so frivolous. Holley also provided the poem's title, An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. The work was an instant success, and Holley reprinted it during successive holiday seasons at the request of his readers. As the popularity of Moore's poem spread, it appeared in almanacs, anthologies, magazines and in other newspapers. Amazingly, it was not printed in book form until 1848, 26 years after being written.
The first exclusive book edition was published by Henry M. Onderdonk of New York and illustrated with woodcuts by T.C. Boyd. Boyd's St. Nicholas bears little resemblance to the red-suited, exuberant Santa Claus of today. Boyd depicted a rather diminutive figure in knee breeches, buckle shoes, and a fur hat. Boyd's Santa is so small that he stands on a chair to fill the children's stockings, and his head barely reaches a doorknob.
In the years following Onderdonk's publication, many artists illustrated Moore's poem and, although all looked to the poem for inspiration, their interpretations of Santa differ greatly. Some portrayed Santa in the costume of England's Father Christmas, the Netherlands' Sinterklaas, or Germany's Belsh-Nichel. When such early editions were printed in color, Santa's clothes are not only red, but blue, brown, green and even yellow. The development and subsequent standardization of our modern Santa Claus resulted from the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Thomas Nast worked for Harper's Weekly where he depicted political events with a wry, biting humor. During the holiday season, however, Nast turned to a more pleasant topic, Christmas. His festive scenes were extremely popular and were eventually published in a children's book. The publisher, McLoughlin Brothers, wanted to print the illustrations in color, and that created a dilemma for Nast who was accustomed to working in black ink. Although Nast had envisioned Santa as wearing a tan fur suit, he was compelled to create colorful illustrations. His solution was to dress Santa in an eye-catching red suit edged with brilliant white fur. This defining image influences artists' renditions of Santa Claus to this very day.