Martin Gardner,
The Annotated Night Before Christmas
(Prometheus, 2005)

How much do you really know about "A Visit from St. Nicholas" or, as it is more commonly called, "The Night Before Christmas"?

How much do you want to know?

If the popular holiday story-poem holds even the slightest interest for you, Martin Gardner has all your answers, and more. In The Annotated Night Before Christmas, Gardner (better known to the world as a mathematician) devotes more attention to the famous rhyme than NASA has expended on quarks.

That doesn't mean he considers the poem, written in 1822 by Clement C. Moore for his daughters, as the height of rhymed literature. In his introduction, Gardner writes: "I hope no one imagines that I regard the selections in this book as good poetry. Although doggerel and great poetry are at opposite ends of various continua, with all shades in between, there is a useful rough distinction between good poetry and what can be called popular verse."

No worries for the casual reader, though, this is no heady, academic examination of the topic at hand. Gardner does not squeeze the poem into test tubes and perform chemical transmogrifications on the words; rather, he expounds on its popularity by exploring its impact on the world through sequels, spoofs and other homages.

The book begins with the tale of the tale, or an explanation of how Moore came to write the thing in the first place. The chapter meanders a bit, delving into various incarnations of Santa Claus (few of which bore resemblance to Moore's version at the time of its writing) as well as differing forms of celebrating the holiday around the world before drifting into the pros and cons of children's belief in Santa. The second chapter presents Moore's poem itself, heavily annotated for those who might want more information on sugar-plums, kerchiefs and the nomenclature of reindeer.

What follows is the evolution of the poem, from a series of "The Night After Christmas" renditions to various remakes, revisions and corruptions of the theme. Some are coarse, some are belly-laughers. Some evoke a social conscience; in one by Armand T. Ringer (a pseudonym), Santa muses: "I've decided next Christmas to alter my plans, / And instead of America, journey to lands / Where hunger is rampant. To hell with the toys. / I'll bring only food to the girls and the boys."

Santa visits Mount Olympus in one version, Mother Goose's fairylands in another. He's reinterpreted several times for Mad Magazine, as well as New York, Life, Seventeen and others. He's replaced by Fred Astaire, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Nicholson and Sid Vicious. He's also relocated to numerous locales, from outer space to Florida to the Arizona desert. He pops up during the Korean War ("Merry Christmas to all -- May you live through the night!") and in the smoky Baker Street abode of Sherlock Holmes.

Several dialect versions revise the poem to suit various cultural needs -- Yiddish, Texan, Cajun, Michigan, Appalachian -- while others are suited to professions from educator to scientist. Illustrations throughout make it even more of a delight.

This book is great fun for anyone, young or old, who still hangs a stocking by the chimney with care and dreams of sugar-plums on that magical night of the year. Happy Christmas to all!

review by
Tom Knapp

15 December 2007

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