Thursday, December 24, 2015

Once Upon A Forever....: The Visit: The Story of "The Night Before Christmas" by Mark Kimball Moulton

"'Tis rarer than rare
That one hears a story as I'd like to share.

"Come--let's pack our valises,"
Mother said to us all,
"for a visit to Granddad,"
she said, I recall.

It's the 1920s, and little Dinghy Sharp and her whole family bustle aboard a train pulled by a steam engine, sleep in a Pullman car, and finally chuff into the station that is their destination. As she tells it...
"I peered through the window and to my surprise,
There stood New York City before my eyes!"

A special motorcar called a taxi whisks them through the brightly decorated streets to a tall building with a doorman and an elevator, right to a door opened by their grandfather, who hugs them and says he has a special gift. The little girl sees no packages, no curly-haired dolls, no bicycles or balls. But the present is a story.

"Let me tell you a story," he said as he smiled,
"that my very own Granddad first told his own child."

"Dr. Clement Clarke Moore was my grandfather's name,
but to all he was 'Papa,' friends and family the same."

And the story this granddad told was of his own granddad's beloved poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," mostly known today by its first line, which begins, 'Twas the night before Christmas....," how in 1822 the renowned classics scholar and professor, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a poem that has had millions of readings since, the story of a long-ago Christmas Eve in which a father wakes to watch St. Nicholas land his sleigh, slide down the chimney, and fill all the stockings for the children of the house.

This granddad described Papa's grand, gabled house in Chelsea, shuttered and surrounded by falling snow in winter. He explains "sugarplums," actual plums preserved by sugaring, and why Ma needed her kerchief and Pa his cap in the unheated bedrooms of the house, Granddad leans back, has a sip of tea, and begins to recall and recite the verses as his Papa wrote them so long ago. "'Twas the night before Christmas...."

It's the story of a story, just as it was related to young Dinghy Sharp by her grandfather, whose grandfather was indeed Clement Clarke Moore himself. It's a story within a story, as Granddad recalls what his Papa told him about how he wrote that famous poem, making his own home the setting, with even a pesky mouse, and using his friends and neighbors, right down to the kindly wood dealer Jan-Peter, whose sleigh-wagon brought firewood even to those who couldn't pay for it in midwinter, as models for the characters, as a special gift for his own daughter.

In The Visit: The Origin of "The Night Before Christmas" (Schiffer Publishing), Mark Kimball Moulton chooses to tell the story of this classic in the same familiar pentameter couplets as Moore's original in a colorful true story of how this story in rhyme came to be a staple at Christmastime. The lovely period illustrations by Susan Winget, done in muted reds, sepia browns, greens and reds, with horse-drawn sleighs and snow-capped evergreens, perfectly set the mood of the nineteenth-century sections of the story, as well as the twentieth century memories of Dinghy Sharp, who lived to tell us the true story of that "once in forever" tale.

"And as Papa sat there, so content in his sleigh,
on that hill, Christmas Eve on that long ago day--

he thought of his daughter and her simple request--
and he thought of his family and how they were blessed--

and 'twas then, in that instant, Papa knew he would write
a NEW CHRISTMAS STORY for his daughter that night."

A story and a history in rhyme, this one should be on all library shelves for curious readers and young historians.

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