Carnegie Mellon Press Release: December 3, 2003
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Press Release

Teresa Thomas

For immediate release:
December 3, 2003

'Twas The Night Before Christmas Collection At Carnegie Mellon Reveals Santa's Many Images

PITTSBURGH—Santa sporting knee britches. Santa in a Father Christmas-style coat. Santa clad in a hot pink Santa suit.

This evolution of Santa's fashion sense is just one of the many stories told by one of the world's most widely read holiday poems, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." One of the largest collections of the poems is housed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

For the past century, society's conception of Santa Claus has been based largely on this poem by Clement Clarke Moore. "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" has transformed America's perception of St. Nicholas. Before the poem's publication, St. Nicholas was portrayed as a lanky, stern bishop who visited children to dispense both gifts and discipline. "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" recast St. Nicholas as a cheerful, rosy-cheeked elf. The poem also established Christmas as a time for giving gifts to children.

"''Twas the Night Before Christmas' is all about memories and expectations," said Mary Catharine Johnsen, Carnegie Mellon's special collections librarian. "Most people know the poem. However, based on the edition they grew up with, they have different interpretations of how Santa looks." Since 1982, Carnegie Mellon's Hunt Library has housed one of the largest collections of the poem. The collection was started in the 1930s by author and bibliophile Anne Lyon Haight. After being exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in 1962, the collection was donated to Carnegie Mellon by Haight's children.

While the poem itself remains unchanged by time, the illustrations accompanying the poem present a chronological depiction of how Santa has changed and adapted to fit the times. Over the years, the poem has attracted the attention of many diverse artists. Thomas Nast, Grandma Moses, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Arthur Rackham are among the many artists who have illustrated the infamous poem.

Stating only that Santa was "dressed in all fur, from his head to his foot," the poem in itself provides little information about Santa's appearance. In the first illustrated version of Santa Claus, dated 1849, Santa wears a fur hat, fur jacket and knee britches. This illustration demonstrates nostalgia, another prevalent element of the poem. Despite the fact that, by the late 1840s, most men wore full length pants, Santa appears wearing knee britches, a trend dating back to the 18th century.

"The depiction of Santa in knee britches demonstrates that the poem has been nostalgic from the beginning," said Johnsen. "It shows that, while the poem was meant to be read to young children, the illustrations accompanying it were primarily for the children's parents. The illustrations are representative of how things were when the parents were children."

As time progressed, so did many of the items in Santa's wardrobe. While Santa's costume has always been predominantly red, different illustrations of the poem depict subtle changes reflective of the different time periods. From 1880 until 1930, Santa is featured wearing a long, Father Christmas-style coat. A 1958 version of the poem shows a hatless Santa with a shiny bald head — a rarity, as Santa is almost always shown with his cap on. When the 1960s rolled around, Santa's clothing became even more representative of popular culture. Neon oranges and acid greens prevail throughout the illustrations while Santa is seen soaring through the sky in his hot pink sleigh.

Although "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" has been around for close to 180 years, debates over its authorship continue. The poem first appeared in The Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823, as an anonymously penned work. The authorship of the poem remained unknown until 1837, when it appeared in The New York Book of Poetry, credited to wealthy Manhattan biblical scholar Clement Clarke Moore. However, in 1999 the descendants of poet Henry Livingston Jr. began insisting that it was Livingston, not Moore, who penned America's most popular holiday poem.

A display of selected items from the collection can be seen in the Fine & Rare Book Room (Hunt Library, 4th floor), Monday - Friday, 1:30 - 4:30 p.m.

Written by Bethany Elder, MAPW 2003


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