’Tis the night before Christmas and, well, let’s admit, there’s a lot in Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem that feels at least quaint and often obsolete beyond recognition to most people in the age of artificial intelligence.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” was, after all, first published in 1823. America still used canals to transport heavy loads, with the first railroad yet to be made. The first Sears Catalog (remember those) was still some 65 years away. The U.S. population had yet to hit 10 million (it exceeded 308 million in 2010).
Sure, you could still find a mouse not stirring, though Moore referred to the biological critter, not the digital computer interface. But children dreaming of sugar plums? They have to Google it on their smart phones these days. Men sleeping in night caps? More likely to drink one before hitting the sack.
Tearing open the window shutters? Kind of hard when the only shutters you can find are fake ones nailed to vinyl siding on the outside of the house. And most of those “shutters” would be too small to cover the windows, even if they were real.
Santa coming down the chimney? Right, and straight into the gas furnace. Of course, over the years there have been, by necessity, many explanations offered for Santa access in all the homes lacking a fireplace, so maybe this one is less antiquated than mutated.
And smoke encircling his head like a wreath? The health hazards outweigh anything that brings to the picture, so maybe just strike the line.
Let’s not even consider flying like “down on a thistle.”
The truth, of course, is that the poem survived as a seasonal classic not because of specific images, but because of a less tangible sentiment. For anyone willing to accept, it infuses with a spirit of well-being and whimsy.
It charms with “eyes, how they twinkled! and “dimples, how merry!” It sends out a lilting rhythm with “the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” And it tugs open our hearts as “he looks like a peddler just opening his sack.”
It’s true that Moore wrote in, and for, a time of horse-drawn carriages and candle-lit parlors. His poem was published the same year the electromagnet was invented and James Fenimore Cooper began his five Leatherstocking Tales. A movie screen would have been sheer fantasy, a computer screen would have been inconceivable.
But while Moore’s poem depicts a gift-bearing man of portly stature “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,” it is still repeated because of something transcendent, something bigger than St. Nicholas speaking “not a word” while going “straight to his work” filling “stockings.”
Of course it’s important, for Christians, to keep Christ in this holiday. But it’s also important to remember why this holiday is enjoyed by so many beyond that faith. Christmas can and should bring out the best in us.
‘Tis the night before Christmas, and Moore got it right:
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”