What “Twas the Night Before Christmas” Taught Me About Advent



 

The Rev. John Drymon
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Batesville, Ark.
December 2, 2011

Having spent three years reading for Holy Orders and living on Chelsea Square in New York City, I have a special place in my heart for Clement Henry Moore, one of General Theological Seminary’s founding faculty members and donor of the property on which the seminary still sits. But few remember Moore as an accomplished professor of Greek and Hebrew and a generous benefactor; he is more widely remembered for a poem he wrote for his children and which, in his humility, he was loathe to publish. In “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (popularly known today as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Moore essentially created the modern American conception of Santa Claus; neither Coca-Cola nor Macy’s Department Store can claim as much of a hand in our shared image of the “jolly old elf.”

Now, like any self-respecting churchman, I’d agree that our culture spends too much time during this season focusing on things only tangentially related to the mystery of the Incarnation and the joy of welcoming the Christ Child into our hearts. Even so, there’s nothing inherently harmful in “Christmastide marginalia,” and there may even be something spiritually helpful in all of it. Rereading “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” made this clearer to me.

I was recently reading the original poem and noticed something that had apparently been changed in modern editions. Most of us probably remember the following lines:

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.

But notice the slight difference in the original:

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

I can only speculate as to the change from “settled our brains” to “settled down.” (When I think of “brains,” I tend to think of zombies, but I suspect the alteration predates George Romero.) But whatever the reason for the change, I think something was lost.

“Settling down” for a long winter’s nap could just mean relaxing and getting ready for bed, like one does any night. “Settling one’s brains,” on the other hand, implies a degree of stress or trouble preceding the “settling.” It’s only after mama’s and papa’s brains are settled, as soon as they set aside whatever storm and stress they had been battling, that this marvelous surprise—Old Saint Nick and his miniature sleigh and the eight tiny reindeer—comes rushing into their reality.

Remember, Clement Clark Moore taught at a seminary (an Episcopal seminary at that!), so perhaps he was saying something more than we give him credit for. I like to think he was, anyway. Maybe Moore was saying that once we “settle our brains,” once we set aside the changes and chances of this mortal life, we can finally embrace joy and wonder.

That’s what we ought to be doing in Advent, after all. We do a shabby job of it, since we stress out so epically about buying gifts and getting the decorations up and organizing travel plans. What would happen if we managed to put all that down for a moment, to quiet ourselves in the midst of this frantic season? Perhaps we’d be surprised by some small thing that had always been there but that we had only now given ourselves leave to delight in. Perhaps we’d be able for the first time in a long time “to travel in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem to see this wondrous thing which has taken place.”