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‘Twas a Hidden Meaning in a Children’s Story that Made Christmas a Family Holiday

As you sit by the fire this holiday season, take a closer look at one of the stories that shaped how our country celebrates.

By Amber Francis ‘22

Before the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas, otherwise known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, the holiday season looked very different. Such is the power of children’s literature according to Brian Rouleau, an associate history professor in the College of Liberal Arts. 

“Children’s literature has often been designed to pass a society’s core values from one generation to the next,” Rouleau said. “It’s messaging is usually meant to steer children along paths considered proper and acceptable.”

In the United States, many of the first children’s books were religious in nature, and their purpose wasn’t for entertainment, but rather the opposite. These books were the product of Puritan parents seeking to prevent their offspring from sinning, and were quite explicit in describing the miseries of eternal damnation awaiting “bad” boys and girls. 

But slowly, as children’s place in society changed and views on parenting evolved, children’s literature became kinder and gentler, and themes became less explicitly spiritual. Fairy tales, talking animals, and other imaginary settings took the place of the fire and brimstone from years past. Young people were less often threatened with punishment for their transgressions. Instead, it became far more likely for the child’s innocence, wonder, and capacity for creativity to be celebrated. 

Though the state of children’s literature began to change, said books by no means stopped having hidden messages or meanings entirely. And that brings us to what brought New Yorker Clement Clark Moore to write perhaps the most famous Christmas poem of all time.

“That story served a few purposes that are lost to us today. Christmas was at one time not a family-friendly holiday,” Rouleau noted. “It was most often celebrated in the streets by rowdy groups of teenagers and servants. It was considered a day where the ordinarily humble and subservient lower classes of society could engage in behavior we call ‘wassailing.’” 

This behavior usually involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol and raucously soliciting contributions door-to-door in the form of food, money, or more drink. Refusal often resulted in vandalism or some other act of retribution. Moore hoped his poem would end some of the disorder—instead of rowdy wassailers banging at your door, it was the jolly, non-threatening Santa Claus who would visit peaceful homes; rather than loudly demanding charity, he would quietly leave presents to reward good boys and girls.   

“All of this was meant to transform Christmas into a holiday geared toward children and families, rather than the obnoxious and drunken mobs that Moore thought had corrupted the celebration,” Rouleau explained. 

Though Moore’s story successfully changed people’s tune during the holiday season, Rouleau still stressed the importance in understanding the resilience of children in resisting their own indoctrination.

“Literature might attempt to teach young people certain values, but this messaging isn’t always absorbed,” he stated. “The most successful children’s literature often consists of stories that offer youths the opportunity to think through some problem or dilemma on their own.”