Columns > Published on December 21st, 2015

Editor's Notes: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas

Dear Mr. Moore,

I'm not sure how this piece became SO lost in my to-do pile, but I finally got around to it.

Overall, I think there might be something here, although there is a consistent problem with some old-timey language that doesn't make as much sense in 2015. I left that alone, but just be aware it's something I'm seeing throughout.

Please take the rest of these notes as constructive criticisms.


A Visit From St. Nicholas

by Clement Clarke Moore

Stop. Already. Clem, do you mind if I call you Clem?

Clem, this title, it's killing you. I showed this poem around the office, and EVERYONE called it "That 'Twas The Night Before Christmas Thing."

Do you know the song about chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Do you know what that's called? "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)". Those dum-dums had a title that didn't tell me which song it was, and then they even had a parenthetical that didn't explain anything.

I'd be willing to have a Journey-esque compromise here, "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)", where we could do your crazy title parenthetically and the real title up front. Findability in an online world doesn't begin with an obscure title.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

Ooof. That rhyme's a little easy, don't you think?

My problem isn't the fact that it rhymes, but it feels like that second line exists only to serve the rhyme. It doesn't really illuminate the setting or advance the story. It's more cute than productive, and we're only two lines in here. More movement.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

This is a problem I'm having consistently here. HOW were the stocking hung? With care? What does "care" look like? Tell me. WHO cares? HOW do they care?

This is a really good opportunity to open up the story. If we see the stockings hung, I think we'll be right in there with you. We'll see the excitement. If I saw a younger child pull a dining room chair out from under the table, drag it towards the fireplace, and then stand on it to hang his stocking, I'd see the age and size of the child, the effort that goes into the act. "Care" is a word that needs a lot of unpacking.

Yes, finally! Finally this thing gets a little sexy.

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;

Dude, with the semicolons. 

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

"Brains" is not a term I'm in love with here. Very science-y in this cozy scene. 

Hmm, unless this means you're drunk. Is that what this means? In that case, just say you're drunk. Possible brand placement? "And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, / Had just gotten wasted on a six of Labatt's."

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

I feel it necessary to point out that this is your FIRST sentence ending. Let's see how this sentence looks without the line breaks:

'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 my bed to see what was the matter.

We've gone from it's quiet and it's Christmas and the stockings and hopes and children and sugar plums and you and mamma and bedtime and then some shit on the lawn and then you got up. In that one sentence, you were going to bed and then you sprang up. I think it'd be more effective if you were REALLY in bed and THEN got up.

Also, the lawn? Is there snow outside? I'm picturing snow outside, but maybe that's just me.

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 a lustre of midday to objects below,

Yes, finally! Finally this thing gets a little sexy. Flashing, tearing. I know a thing or two about poetic metaphors, and while I might not ALWAYS pick up on them, I recognize when the Polar Express is leaving the station. More of this, please.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

I'm not as sure on the size of these things. Miniature sleigh? Is that like a Hot Wheels thing? Tiny rein-deer? Maybe we get Vern Troyer for the movie. Let's just keep an eye on this.

With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he 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, Donner and Blitzen!

Let's go name-by-name:

Fat shaming. Not going to work.

Dasher: Fine. 
Dancer: Fine.
Prancer: Less sure about this one. I'm sure it wasn't intended to be an issue. But maybe something like "Eric" or "Janet" would be better.
Vixen: Yes! Now we get sexy again. 
Comet: Would replace with something more like "Vixen", but male. Possibly "Rip Chisel" or "Channing."
Cupid: That's a fat baby already associated with another holiday.
Blitzen: A little close to "Blitzkrieg" for my liking. I don't like the road that sends me down. That road is paved with swastikas.

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

This feels too close to that "To the window/to the wall" song, which I'm pretty sure is just about ejaculating all over the place. But DJ's play it at weddings, so maybe it's fine.

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop 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.

"In a twinkling" feels like a holiday version of "all of a sudden." Nice try, buddy, but you're not getting that one past me. Put the work on the page, please.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

Drew in your head? Are you a ninja turtle? If so, that's not a problem. That's marketable. But I need to know that earlier on, and we need to make sure the land on this stanza is either pizza-related or "Cowabunga."

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.

Drop the fur, please. Not necessary. And we're avoiding the "ped" prefix as well, especially when talking about a character who is, in essence, a home invader.

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 on his chin was as white as the snow;

I'm sorry, but I started picturing his mouth, based on this description, as looking like a butthole. And once I pictured it, there was no going back. Try that one out on some other people. Could be just me.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

If this character is smoking indoors, let's change this to vape-ing. You get more "smoke" that way too, so it could make for a nice visual.

He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

Fat shaming. Not going to work.

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;

Just the stockings? No presents under the tree? Is this one of those things about how it's good to be broke as hell on Christmas? Am I going to learn about the real meaning of Christmas? God help you if this ends with the real meaning of Christmas.

Also, the nose thing. First I'm thinking cocaine, then I'm thinking he's just blowing his nose on the floor like an animal. Let's lose that. He can just nod or something.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

I can't possibly be expected to visualize that simile. This is not Little House On The Whatever.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Wow did you blow that ending. "Happy" Christmas? Who says that? Nobody says that. That's like saying "Merry Holidays" or "Have a rapturous Halloween" or "Wishing you an erotic Thanksgiving." I know there's pressure with the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays thing, but pick a team. Have some guts, man.

Well, Mr. Moore, thank you for the manuscript. Keep on writing and working, and I'm sure that with a lot of practice and luck and then probably more practice, you'll create your masterpiece.

And I thought I was light on this point above, so just to finish it off, don't forget these words of wisdom when it comes to Christmas poetry: Sex appeal, dummy.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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