‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore is a fifty-one line poem that is contained within one block of text. Moore has structured this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of aabbccdd, moving onward as the poet saw fit. The nature of the rhyme scheme fits well with the content of the poem.
Both the mood and tone of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ are of center around a feeling of amazement. The speaker relishes the sights he saw and takes great joy from his knowledge of St. Nicholas. The text itself focuses on the story of St. Nicholas, more commonly known as Santa Claus, and a visit he paid to the speaker’s home. Due to the fact that the narrative was directed at a young audience, the sing-song-like pattern of rhyme makes sense. It helps make the poem into something easy to follow along with. The poem should be enjoyed for content and for the way the words sound together.
The majority of the text is structured in anapaestic tetrameter. This means that the lines are divided into four feet and follow a pattern of unstressed-unstressed-stressed. While the majority of the poem follows this pattern, there are moments, such as in lines three and four in which it diverges. In this instance, the initial unstressed syllable has been removed. The repetition of the meter, in combination with the regular pattern of rhyme, adds to the poem’s already upbeat and clear syntax.
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‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ was first published anonymously in Sentinel in 1823 and then later claimed by author Clement Clarke Moore. Contemporary. Historians consider this piece to be one of the most famous pieces of writing attributed to an American. It is also credited as being the main source from which the myth of Santa Clause was formed. Readers will certainly recognize the first stanza, as its words have become synonymous with the Christmas tradition. It is from the first line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’” or “The Night Before Christmas” that the poem is better known. The poem was made into a classic book and has been set to music and recorded by numerous musicians.
It is thought that Moore wrote ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ after taking a ride in a sleigh in the middle of winter. His inspiration may or may not have come from a local man as well as from the traditional story of Saint Nicholas.
Summary of A Visit from St. Nicholas
The poem begins with the speaker describing how his house has been readied for the arrival of St. Nick. There are stockings hanging by the chimney and all the children are in bed. They are dreaming happily about sweets.
On the other side of the house, the speaker and his wife are just getting ready for bed when there is a loud sound outside. The man rushes to the window and sees Santa and his sleigh. Santa climbs into the chimney and down into the house where he sets out the presents. The whole visit is over quickly and the speaker is left with an impression of the man as a “jolly…elf.” He is of another world, come to this one to share joy through presents and the Christmas spirit.
Analysis of A Visit from St. Nicholas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
The first section of this piece, as stated above, contains the lines which are commonly recited around Christmas. They appear within the text of the book, “The Night Before Christmas” and are known by celebrators around the world. The lines are fairly straightforward in that they describe a quiet night in which no one, not even the smallest of animals, was “stirring,” or moving around.
Before everyone retired to bed, the scene was set. The stockings were hung with great reverence by the chimney and all sent out their wishes that “St. Nicolas” would soon arrive at the house. Even without prior knowledge of the ways Christmas is now celebrated, or the further imaginings this poem has produced, the magical nature of the scene is clear. The children are “nestled” and “snug” like small animals and as they sleep they dream of dancing sweets. They are aware that the next day will bring something amazing.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my 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.
The next six lines of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ are also quite familiar. In this section the speaker begins to use the first person, referring to himself as “I” and describing how he is wearing his “cap.” The speaker also addresses the fact that he is with his wife, settling in for “a long winter’s nap.” This is just a metaphor used to describe the length of unbroken darkness during the nights of winter. Their “nap” or night’s sleep, is disturbed by a “clatter.” This could be any ruckus noise occurring outside their home.
The speaker is unsure of what he is heard and flies “like a flash” to the window. He expects there to be ”something the matter.” The rhyme scheme of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ , and the meter, do a lot to keep these lines from sounding at all scary or intimidating. A reader understands from the context that whatever is happening, it is not a disaster. The residents of the home are not in danger.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
After pulling the blinds open quickly, the man is immediately struck by the light of the moon which has fallen on the new piles of snow. It is so bright outside the window that some objects look to be in the “midday” light. Finally, his eyes roam over to a small “sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer.” The driver of this sleigh, who the speaker is just discovering, is “old” and “lively and quick.” Without further information, he knows there is only one person this could be, “St. Nick.”
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
St. Nick calls out to his “coursers” or reindeer. He whistles and goes through their names. These lines all end in an exclamation, making it clear that the old man is shouting, quite loudly at his deer companions. He is telling them that it is time to move on. First to the “top of the porch” then further “away” and “away” from everyone.
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
The movement of the reindeer from the ground and up onto the roof is quick. They move like a storm, as fast as a “hurricane” that flies from place to place. The reindeer surge over any obstacle in their path and land on the roof. The speaker is able to determine that the “sleigh” is “full of toys.”
The sound of the reindeer on the roof is like a “twinkling.” They step lightly and are so imbued with magic that their hoof steps are light and airy. It also makes one think of the stars which are likely shinning above the scene. The word “twinkling” will be used again later on in the text to refer to the St. Nick’s eyes.
A reader should take note of the use of alliteration in the last line of this stanza. This instance is also somewhat onomatopoeic in nature in that the soft “p” sound likely depicts the gentle hoof steps
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
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 pedler just opening his pack.
The scene is progressing quickly, and necessarily so, as this is not the only house Santa Claus has to visit tonight. Before the man in the cap can turn around and pull his head back inside the window there is the sound of “St. Nicholas” coming down the “chimney.” The speaker does not express any significant surprise about this fact, it fits in well with the other magical images he has already seen.
Once in the other room, the speaker gets a glimpse of the man who came down the chimney. He is covered in clothing made of fur as well as a solid layer “from his head to his foot” of ash. This image is meant to be comical and humanize this character who is already clearly in possession of magic beyond that of the speaker.
He is carrying a “bundle” just like a “pedler” or someone who travels selling small items. This is very much not what he is doing though, presenting an interesting contrast to his true purpose of giving toys.
His eyes—how they twinkled! 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 on 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 bowl full of jelly.
In the next line of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, the speaker brings the narrative back to the magical qualities that St. Nick possesses. There is something about his complexion that sparks the speaker’s imagination. The man’s “eyes…twinkled” just like the stars, and like the sounds of the reindeer hooves. The description spreads to his “droll” or curious mouth and how it is turned up into a smile like a bow.
Last, there is the “beard on his chin.” It fits in perfectly as it appears to be the same color “as the snow.” These few parts of the man’s image are enough to prove that he is exactly as one would expect. Happy, good-natured, and fitting perfectly into this magical scene Moore has set out so far.
In the last four lines of the section, the speaker describes the “pipe” in the man’s teeth and the way the smoke from the pipe “encircled his head like a wreath.” The natural elements are coming together around him and benefiting his image and therefore the speaker’s perception. There is enough interaction between the two for the speaker to know that when the man “laughed” his “round belly…shook…like a bowl full of jelly.”
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
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,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
The concluding sections of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ are devoted to further description of the man and an elucidation of his task in the house. Line forty speaks, again, to the man’s stomach. He is “plump” and “jolly” and “chubby.” But also beyond the known world, making him an “elf.” Although the scene is outlandish and in another context might be scary (just like the text itself), the speaker states that he “laughed” at the chubby man. He didn’t mean to but couldn’t help it.
The elf-like man moves with a lighthearted determination. He is happy to go about his task of filling the stockings and giving out the presents. It is just one house on his list of many and he is confident in his work. St. Nick gives the speaker a couple of different conspiratorial glances. It is as if he is saying, “I know you saw me, but don’t tell.”
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
In the last lines of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ , the old man touches the side of his noes and flies up the chimney and back onto the roof. It all happens so quickly and the speaker is left to hear the man’s last words to the night. From where he is in the house all he can make sense of are the sounds. There is a “whistle” to the team of reindeer and a final exclamation, telling everyone to have a “good night” and a “Happy Christmas.”