Friday, November 25, 2011

"Like the down of a thistle"

No other American poem has been printed so often. Its illustrators range from Arthur Rackham (left) to Grandma Moses. Yes, folks, we're talking about Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as The Night Before Christmas—in this case as annotated most splendidly by Martin Gardner.
Before Moore's poem consolidated the iconography of Santa Claus, the range of characters bringing gifts at the Christmas season was broad. They included the Dutch Sinterklaas and his Moorish sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who arrived from Spain on Dec. 5 (St. Nicholas Eve); the German Kris Kringle; the Italian witch Befana, who dispenses her goodies on January 5,  (Twelfth Night) to commemorate the visit of the Three Wise Men; and the Spanish tradition of the Wise Men themselves, who come bearing gifts as they did thousands of years ago.
The many parodies included in the book include hipster, Cajun, and Yiddish versions. My favorites have to be the handful reprinted from MAD magazine. Here's the opening of the 1981 version by Frank Jacobs:

'Twas the night before Christmas, and one thing was clear-
That old yuletide spirit no longer was here;
Inflation was rising; the crime rate was trippling;
The fuel bills were up, and our mortgage was crippling;

I opened a beer as I watched the TV,
Where Donny sang "O Holy Night" to Marie;
The kids were in bed, getting sleep like they should;
Or else they were stoned, which was almost as good.

While ma with her ball-point pen was making a fuss
'Bout folks we'd send cards to who'd sent none to us;
"Those ingrates," she thundered, and pounded her fist;
"Next year you can bet they'll be crossed off our list!"
Charming 1902 illustration by W. W. Denslow, who did the original Wizard of Oz
"Visions of sugarplums danced in their heads." Jessie Willcox Smith, 1912, and Arthur Rackham, below, 1931
Jessie Wilcox Smith's Santa sports the fur suit of many early depictions; plus he's elf-sized
Here is a reading of the poem by the one and only Basil Rathbone.

And to all a good night!

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