'Twas the Night Before Christmas Explained
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
This is a popular poem in the United States at Christmas time. It was written in the 1800s by Clement Clarke Moore. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand poems in another language. As we go through the poem, I'll explain what it means. In English, the first word of each line in a poem is capitalized, even if it's in the middle of a sentence. ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all thro' the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
‘Twas is a contraction of “it was.” We don't use it when we speak or write today. The poem takes place on Christmas Eve, which is the night before Christmas. Thro' is a contraction of the word “through.” “Not a creature was stirring” means nobody was awake. Nobody was moving, not even a mouse. It was very quiet in the house.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
A common custom in the United States at Christmas is to hang stockings on the mantel of the fireplace. Santa Claus, or St. (Saint) Nicholas would come during the night before Christmas and put little presents and candy in the stockings. The stockings were hung carefully, “with care,” because the children hoped Santa Claus would come and fill them with presents and candy.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads. The children were in bed. They were “nestled,” like a bird in a nest. They were warm or “snug.” They were dreaming of “sugar plums.” “Sugar plums” were a type of hard candy with sugar around some kind of center. Although we don't have “sugar plums” today, we understand that the children were dreaming of delicious things to eat, things they hoped Santa would put in their stockings. The dreams “danc'd” or danced in their heads. This shows us they were happy dreams.
And Mama in her ‘kerchief and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap. A ‘kerchief is short for handkerchief. A handkerchief was a cloth tied around a woman's head at night to keep her warmer while she slept. The man wore a cap, which is a type of hat. In the 1800s, bedrooms were sometimes drafty. They could be chilly at night. Wearing a cap or a handkerchief would keep a person warmer at night. The mother and father had just gone to sleep (“settled our brains”) for the night (“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.
The word “arose” is used here to keep the poetic pattern. We don't use the word “arose” very often anymore. A “clatter” is a type of noise. “Such a clatter” means there was a lot of clattering. If you dropped some forks, spoons and knives on the floor, they would clatter. Clattering is lots of small noises that go together to become loud. The father heard this noise outside on the lawn of the house and he jumped out of bed to find out what was going on.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The father ran to the window quickly. When it says he “flew” it means he moved quickly. A “flash” is something that happens very quickly. Unlike houses in some countries, the houses in the 1800s had shutters on the inside of the windows. These shutters helped to keep the cold air out. They also kept the light out so it was easier to sleep. The father opened up the shutters quickly. The word “tore” means he didn't do it carefully. He didn't think about opening them carefully. He wanted to see where the noise was coming from. The word “sash” is the lower part of the window, the part that moves up when the window is open. When it says he “threw up the sash” it means he opened the window. The word “threw” is used to show he did it quickly.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
Gave a luster of mid-day to objects below;
It had just snowed and the bright moon on the top part (the breast) of the snow that had just fallen made it almost as bright as “mid-day” or noon. It “gave a luster” or made the light very bright on all the objects he could see.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
The father saw a small sleigh. A sleigh is like a carriage but has metal runners instead of wheels. Runners help the sleigh not to sink into the snow. The runners make the sleigh stay on stop of the snow. Runners are better in snow than wheels are. Wheels sink into the snow. A sleigh will work better in snow than a carriage. Usually a sleigh is pulled by horses, but this sleigh was pulled by reindeer. A reindeer is a type of deer that lives in colder climates. These reindeer were tiny because the sleigh was tiny.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
St. Nick, Saint Nick, is short for Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is another name for Santa Claus in the United States. Santa was lively (moving a lot) and quick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name. Eagles are birds that can fly fast. “Coursers” is an old word for fast horses. It's not a word we use today. “Call'd” is a contraction of called. “Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen!
On Comet, on Cupid, on Donder and Blitzen!”
These are the names of Santa's reindeer. “Dasher” means someone who runs short distances quickly. “Dancer” means this reindeer probably danced when it moved. When a horse “prances” it lifts its legs high in the air as it moves. A “vixen” is a woman who can be mean sometimes. A “comet” is a fast moving rock in space. “Cupid” was the Roman god of love. “Donder” and “Blitzen” are German words that mean thunder and lightning. In the popular song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the singer used the word “Donner” instead of “Donder.” Most people today think the reindeer's name was Donner, but it was really Donder. To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
Since the reindeer could fly, Santa was telling them where to go. Remember, “dash” means to run a short distance quickly.
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
The reindeer went up into the sky like when the wind takes dry leaves. When the wind blows leaves against an obstacle, against something that blocks the leaves, the leaves fly up into the sky with the wind. This is what the reindeer did. They went up in the air, just like the leaves would do. They went almost straight up into the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too!
The reindeer flew to the top of the house, pulling the sleigh that was full of toys and had St. Nicholas in it too.
And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
A twinkle is a quick flash of light. We often use the word twinkle with lights. When lights go off and on quickly, they twinkle. A twinkle has to be very quick so the author is saying it took no time before he heard the sounds on the roof. Prancing, as I said before, is when a horse (or a reindeer in this case) puts its feet up and down quickly as they walk. It usually shows the horse (or reindeer) is excited or spirited. Pawing is when the horse (or reindeer) digs at the ground with its hoof.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
The father's head was outside of the window while he watched Santa and his reindeer. Now the father pulls his head back inside the window and turned around. He saw Santa Claus coming down the chimney with a bound (a leap, a jump).
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot. The word “dress'd” is a contraction of dressed, and “tarnish'd” is a contraction of tarnished. We don't use these kinds of contractions today. They used to use them in poems. It showed that you weren't supposed to pronounce the –ed ending as a separate syllable. This is important in poems because of the rhythm. Usually when we see pictures of Santa Claus, he was dressed in red with some white fur around the edges of his clothes, but the poem says that Santa was dressed completely in fur. Because Santa came down the chimney, his clothes were dirty from the gray ashes and the black soot in the chimney. Normally we use the word “tarnished” for something made of silver. Silver gets a coating on it and we call that tarnish, but the word “tarnished” can mean that it has some kind of dirt on it.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack. Santa had a bag full of toys that he carried over his shoulder so it rested against his back. If you fling something, you throw it. He had thrown the bag of toys over his shoulder onto his back. Again, the “look'd” is a contraction of looked to show that you pronounce it as only one syllable. A peddler is a type of salesman. He carries things to sell. He usually carries them in a pack, or a bag.
His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
If you remember, I said that twinkling was when lights flashed on and off quickly. Sometimes we say that a person's eyes twinkle. This usually means the person is very happy and maybe even a little mischievous. Dimples are little indents in your cheeks that appear when you are happy. Santa's dimples were “merry” or happy. “Merry” is an old word for happy. His cheeks were red like roses and his nose was bright red 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;
“Droll” is another word for funny. Santa's funny little mouth was “drawn up” or squeezed together and looked like a “bow.” A “bow” is a decoration you put on a gift. We always see Santa Claus with a white beard.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
The “stump” of a pipe is the end of it, the part you put in your mouth. The smoke from the pipe went up in a circle around Santa's head. A “wreath” is made of leaves or flowers. At Christmas time, a wreath is usually made of branches from a pine tree. They are put together so they make a circle. We hang Christmas wreaths on our doors as decorations at Christmas.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly,
That shook when he laugh'd like a bowl full of jelly. Santa had a “broad” face, not a narrow one, and his belly was round. When he laughed, his belly shook or jiggled. If you take a bowl of jelly and shake it, it will jiggle in the same way.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself. “Chubby” and “plump” are nice ways of saying someone is fat. “Jolly” means happy. An “elf” is a small human that usually has supernatural powers. The father in the poem laughed because Santa looked funny, even though the father tried not to laugh (“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.
Santa winked at the father and moved his head in a way that let the father know there wasn't anything to fear (“dread”). He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turned with a jerk. Santa didn't say anything, but started filling the stockings with the presents and candy. When he finished, he turned around with a quick, sharp movement.
Then laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
Santa put his finger next to his nose and nodded then he went up the chimney.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle;
Santa jumped into his sleigh and whistled at his reindeer to tell them it was time to leave. The group of reindeer that pull a sleigh is called a “team.” When he told them it was time to leave, the team of reindeer flew away. A “thistle” is a type of weed that starts as a flower and then turns into a white, fluffy “down” that has a seed on it. When the wind blows it, the seeds fly off quickly.
But I heard him exclaim, e're he drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
The father heard Santa yell as he drove out of sight. “E're” is a contraction of the word “ever” that is not used today, but is used in old poetry. In this case it is better translated with the word, “as.” When it is Christmas, we wish people a “Merry Christmas.” In this poem, though, the author says, “Happy Christmas.” We don't say, “Happy Christmas.” We always say, “Merry Christmas,” even though the word “merry” isn't used very much today.