Those first few familiar lines of this beloved Christmas poem never fail to arouse a warm fuzzy feeling in the hearts and minds of young and old alike. When you throw the images of P.J. Lynch into that mix, you have a recipe for Yuletide bliss!
The poem tells the story of a family who has settled into bed the night before Christmas. Not long after the family have fallen asleep the father is disturbed by a clatter from the lawn outside the house. Looking out of the window he spies St. Nicolas in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. After parking his sleigh on the rooftop, St. Nicholas makes his way down the chimney and emerged from the fireplace with a sack full of presents.
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 father watches the jolly old elf fill the stockings hanging over the fireplace. St. Nicholas notices the father and they exchange a conspirational glance and a wink, after which St. Nicholas leaves the way he came in – up through the chimney. As his sleigh flies away he is heard wishing a “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night”.
The beloved Christmas classic poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) first appeared anonymously, in the New York newspaper Troy Sentinel, on Dec 23 1823. Reprinted many times since, this poem is now almost 200 years old and so is the controversy surrounding its authorship, which is commonly attributed to the 19th c. theological scholar at the General Theological Seminary in New York Dr. Clement C. Moore (1779 – 1863).
He has allegedly written “Twas the Night Before Christmas” for fun to give as a Christmas present to his daughters, however, his authorship was not claimed until 1837, well after the poem’s first anonymous publication in 1823.
Dr. Moore’s authorship has been disputed by the descendants of Henry Livingston Jr. (1748 – 1828), a poet from an influential New York family. Livingston’s family argue that Henry wrote the poem in 1808 and that it has not been credited correctly. The debate is alive and well to this day with many scholars applying themselves to searching the evidence in support, or otherwise, of each authorship.
Those in favour of Livingston point to linguistic similarities and witty characteristics from his other poetry, as well as the supposed fun personality of Livingston which is much more in keeping with the levity of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. It’s been suggested that Dr Moore himself would have hardly expected to be remembered for this poem. If he thought himself famous as a writer it would most likely be for the Hebrew Dictionary that he wrote.
Researching for this post I have come across a little-known fact highlighted by Melissa Chim, adjunct Professor and Reference Librarian at the General Theological Seminary. Melissa notes that apart from multiple versions of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” editions, the Seminary’s Library holds Moore’s rare follow-up work, titled “The Night After Christmas,” which was published after his death in 1863. In this version, the children are visited by their doctor after having too many treats delivered by Santa – and the physician shares some similarities with Santa himself:
His eyes how they twinkled! Had the doctor got merry?
His cheeks looked like Port and his breath smelt of Sherry…
But a wink of his eye when he physicked our Fred
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread…
I have tried to locate a copy of the above rare sequel and could not find anything online. I hope that some forward-thinking publisher will see the merits of having this published in tandem with “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
This glorious edition published by Walker Books in 2021 has been beautifully illustrated by a renowned contemporary Irish illustrator P.J. Lynch. His illustrations for this book are, as ever, an immersive and affecting experience. ‘Twas The Night’s” watercolours are atmospheric, incredibly detailed and full of Victorian-era Christmas charms. The dark emerald tones that P.J. uses in his night scenes gives them a haunting quality, and the moonlit and snowed under front lawn seen by the father through the window is spellbinding.
Once again, P.J.s ability to capture the essence of a person’s character and to render emotional weight within one image is his superpower. Check out the images of the family asleep in their beds, it’s like you can hear a pin drop, except for the soft rhythmic sound of gentle breathing and the tick-tock of a grandfather clock coming from another room.
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,
P. J. Lynch has been the recipient of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal from the British Library Association twice – in 1995 for “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey”, written by Susan Wojciechowski and in 1997 for “When Jessie Came Across the Sea”, written by Amy Hest. “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” has sold more than a million copies and has been made into a movie.
This talented artist has also designed opera and theatre posters, some Irish stamps and created large murals and mosaic art. He also lectures on art and illustrations and has written and illustrated books of his own of which the most recent one, “The Haunted Lake”, has been nominated for the 2022 Kate Greenaway Medal.
Here is a wonderful video of P.J. reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. This is such a treat to listen to P.J. telling the story and elaborating on his illustrations. I could listen to that hushed, Irish lilt all day. I would even go so far as to say that if Mr Lynch ever decided to hang up his paintbrush, he would have equal success as a voiceover artist for audiobooks.
P.J. also lets us in on a secret picture of a sleeping mouse hidden under the dust cover of the book. I’ve never been a fan of mice, but this dear little fella is one of the cutest mice I have seen.
Read more about his work at www.pjlynchgallery.com.
Check out my reviews of other books by P.J. Lynch here.