An Inclusive Take on a Christmas Classic
December 17, 2020 § 1 Comment
Traditionally on Christmas Eve, I channel my father and do a stirring rendition of Clement C. Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas,” before the kids head up to bed and pretend to sleep. First published in 1823, Moore’s description of St. Nicholas and his eight flying reindeer, landing on rooftops and sliding down chimneys, has shaped our Western portrait of Santa Claus for the past 200 years. And yet, in almost every case, Moore’s words have been illustrated to center a white, upper middle-class family in a small New England town.
When we first moved to Virginia, we didn’t have a fireplace. A preschool classmate asked my son how Santa would get into our home to deliver presents. My son was dumbstruck; nothing I said assuaged his anxiety. When, a few weeks later, I took my kids on our local “Santa Train” (thank you, Virginia Railway Express) to spend an afternoon with the Big Man, my son queued up to ask that most important question: “What if someone doesn’t have a chimney?” To which the white-bearded man pointed to an oversized silver key hanging from his belt. “This magical key opens every door in the world, so if I can’t enter by chimney, I simply go through the front door.” And that was that.
There is a myriad of ways that adults have revised (or eschewed completely) the Santa myth to suit diverse living situations. Addressing economic disparity is tougher. There were years when my son would ask, as we shopped for our local toy drive, “But won’t Santa bring toys to these children?” Those of us who talk to our children of Santa Claus find ourselves perpetuating a myth as privileged and problematic as it is enticing.
Children’s illustrator Loren Long—already beloved in our house for his picture books starring Otis the tractor—has breathed new life into Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (Ages 3-10), setting the original poem to illustrations featuring four diverse families. As we page through the book, the warm, atmospheric, cleverly detailed paintings tell their own stories about what Santa’s arrival looks like for a family on a rural farm, in a mobile home, a city apartment, and an island bungalow. (Even before the poem starts, the endpapers show the different children engaged in Christmassy pursuits, like cookie making and letter writing.) The result is a fresh, if idealized, take on a Christmas classic—which, even as it doesn’t address all the paradoxes of the Santa myth, suggests that the magic of the holiday touches everyone who believes.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Right away, readers are asked to pay close attention to setting. The opening spread will be familiar to anyone who has read previous versions of the poem: a plush, brightly decorated living room, with a great stone hearth and a bucolic view of snowy hillsides through the window. But a page turn quickly establishes that the stockings “hung by the chimney with care” are not the ones from the previous page. Here, a white father sleeps on a pull-out couch in a kitchen, his kids on bunk beds in the next room, with stockings pinned to a crayon drawing of a brick fireplace.
The next page reveals two mixed-race children, “snug in the beds” against a cityscape of lights visible through tall windows; and the next after that introduces us to a brown-skinned mother springing from her bed “to see what was the matter,” rushing over to a set of French doors that open out into palm trees and twinkling lights from the house next door.
Back and forth we go, not always in the same order, as St. Nick appears in the sky above each home, calling his reindeer by name. I’m quite besotted with Loren Long’s short, sprightly rendition of St. Nick, a twist on the stockier character we’re used to seeing. (The pipe remains, of course, else how could the smoke “encircle his head like a wreath”?)
With each painting, we pick up more details about the home and the family who lives there. As St. Nick bounds down the chimney of the island home, we admire the aquamarine fish tile flanking the fireplace. In the city apartment, we notice a dog-themed menorah beside the creche on the mantle.
As St. Nick hauls his sack of toys through the trailer’s kitchen—did he materialize through the fireplace drawing or enter through the front door?—the father, now awake, smiles with amusement.
Then, as quick as he came, St. Nick is gone, his sleigh and hoof tracks the only evidence he was ever there. Well, except the presents he leaves behind, which seem to have been perfectly curated for their recipients, as revealed in the book’s final endpapers.
This is where I, too, leave you. I’ll pick back up in January with more reviews, though if you can’t wait that long, you’ll find me still quite active on Instagram, including touting other new Christmas faves. I wish you and yours a very happy (and bookish) holiday. In the words of Clement C. Moore, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
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Review copy by Harper Collins. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.
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