I must confess I’ve never read The Night before Christmas. I hear snatches of it every year from the children’s bedroom, but it’s one Christmas story I’ve never really been drawn to. Which is odd as the original poem, a Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, contains many of the origins of jolly old Santa Claus as we know him.
In fact the history of the poem is fascinating. By having Saint Nicholas arrive on Christmas Eve, Moore helped cause the shift of the main seasonal celebrations from New Years day to Christmas day. According to this history some Protestants associated the Christmas Day celebrations with ‘Catholic ignorance and deception’. So Moore had St. Nick arrive the night before and ‘deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations… New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.’
Another Night Before Christmas by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is a sensitively updated re-imaging. The references aren’t ‘X-Factor’ specific, so it manages to retain its timelessness. French illustrator Marc Boutavant adds some witty touches like the satellite dish manned by a dog and a Christmas tree lit both by fairy lights the flickering TV. It’s an effortlessly light adaptation, but never trite – Duffy has said she takes Christmas far too seriously, ‘Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas – I’m a great believer in preserving those festivals. They’re like beacons in childhood; they make children feel safe and special.’
What Duffy has done is bring this (to my mind) slightly treacly Christmas confection into the same place inhabited by Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. It has a recognisably British sensibility, ‘But the child who was up and long out of her bed, saw no visions of sugar plums dance in her head; she planned to discover, for once and for all if Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) was real‘.
There’s a lovely section where the children discuss whether Father Christmas is ‘really just mum with big cushions or pillows to plump out her tum‘. But never fear, Duffy is no Father Christmas killer, ‘Never! Christmas is taken very seriously in this household. I believe in Father Christmas and there’s no way I’d do anything to undermine that belief.’