Twas the Night Before Christmas – Building a Reader
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;
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 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.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
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 St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
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!”
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 St. Nicholas too.
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 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 peddler just opening his pack.
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;
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 bowlful 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;
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.”
On Building a Reader
The Night Before Christmas is many children’s first exposure to longer poems. My mother read The Night Before Christmas to us every Christmas Eve, and, when I was younger, countless nights between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember my brother and I reading it to each other as late as seventh or eighth grade.
Looking over this poem now, I recognize several words and phrases that caught my imagination as a young child. From The Night Before Christmas I learned about dimples, sugar-plums, kerchiefs and “new-fallen” snow. I looked forward to Fall leaves, “that before the wild hurricane fly,” and I learned the phrase “meet with an obstacle.” “Nose like a cherry” introduced me to similes. Somewhere along the line I picked up that “Blitzen” is a German word for “lightening,” and both “Donner” and “Donder” mean “thunder.”
I began sharing music and books with my own daughter when she was still in the womb. At certain sounds, she would move differently, expectantly. She loved poetry, and Trevor Pinnock’s rendering of Four Seasons – when she was a few days old I played Four Seasons, and her eyes brightened with recognition and utter awe. Almost before she could hold her head up, any time I was awake enough to read and had time to sit down, we were reading, or reading and singing at the same time.
She was a sponge for new words. I remember her at two, laughing uproariously at the word “elbow,” and at three, both fascinated with and tremendously frustrated by three syllable words, insisting that I teach her how to say “Hawaii,” resenting that it was hard (and in her way) until the moment it clicked. When I taught her the word “delicate” she toddled around chanting “de-li-cate,” gently stroking everything from flowers to cats, as if to see how that word fit into her world.
I only shared The Night Before Christmas with my daughter for a few years. When she was five, before I knew she was reading more than simple phrases on her own, my daughter skipped ahead down the page and pointed at a word, asking, “Mommy, what’s a courser?” By the next Christmas she had let it be known that I was not to read to her any more, and she wouldn’t be reading to me or with me. Reading aloud was too slow, and she simply had to turn the page. She was driven – hungry, hungry, hungry to be off on her own, reading anything and everything.
When she was supposed to be picking up her toys, I’d roust her from the bathroom and collect books hidden under the rug. I solved the mystery of her crampy neck, after finding her, late at night, crouched on the floor by a nightlight, face-planted into a book, bum in the air. I caught holy hell from her for removing the nightlight, in favor of leaving her door ajar and the hall light on. It was either that, or restrict access to her books, and metering out book time was out of the question in my house.
At 22 she still has a saucy mouth and more creativity than anyone could know what to do with in only one lifetime, and her vocabulary is a gift that will stay with her always.
A Piece of Heavenly Peace
Christmas is a busy time. We race around buying, planning, making, mourning about being broke, whipping up that one last batch of yummies – and then there’s the cleanup.
Take some time to share stories. Sing together, even if you need a bucket to carry a tune. Read to each other – listen to each other, even if you already know how the story ends. Reading takes on a life of its own, growing with us in childhood and as we grow apart as independent adults, but the bonds and gifts of shared culture are strong.