My father used to read us “The Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve — but not just the poem. He read us Louise Turnbull’s fictionalized account of Clement Moore’s writing of “The Night Before Christmas” from this exact hardcover, out-of-print book whose periwinkle blue cover was frayed and cracked in the way of all well-loved books.
The story is startlingly bleak for a children’s book with such cartoonish illustrations: Professor Moore is away lecturing just before Christmas when his daughter, Charity, comes down with pneumonia and the doctor intimates that she may not live. Moore is unaware of his daughter’s precarious condition until he returns home, having just missed crossing paths with a member of the family’s staff dispatched to inform him — and he arrives notably bereft of the one gift his daughter had requested: a Christmas story. And so he sits down and writes the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” to his daughter’s delight and ultimate recovery.
There is a lot packed into this brief and mildly grim story, whose plot points shaped my impressionable imagination as a child in ways I am only now comprehending–but all of it is about exchange. There are messages lost or buried: the father’s unawareness of Charity’s condition, his forgetfulness about her Christmas request, the delayed departure of the family’s emissary. And there are messages received: the off-screen lectures from Moore to his students, Charity’s contraction of an illness (in a certain sense, something “received” from outside), the doctor’s fatalistic diagnosis, and, of course, the father’s ultimate gifting of a Christmas story to his daughter. Even the daughter’s name, Charity, directs us to the notion of giving and receiving. Ultimately, this is a fable reminding us that giving to others will restore health and happiness in the home.
But as a child, I was primarily troubled by the severity of Charity’s illness (“she could die…” I remember thinking, with wonderment — death! something that seemed only possible for old people!) and the vision of her feverishly sitting on death’s doorstop in a white, Victorian-style nightgown with her eyes rimmed in purple while her father was not only away but entirely unreachable was terrifying. This picture of abandonment haunted me, especially as my father read these words while I was tucked safely under his arm alongside my sisters, enjoying the rise and fall of his voice as he’d arrive at the reading of the poem itself:
Twas the night before Christmas…
The rhythm was slow and somewhat exaggerated, especially as he’d navigate the tongue-twisting bits: “the lustre of midday to objects below” and “as dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,” the syntactical complexity of which startles me now as I read the same to my own children.
And so I felt even then the jarring difference between the cozy cocoon my parents had built around me that night and every night of my childhood and the bone-chilling concept that perils like pneumonia and purple-rimmed eyelids and suffering on one’s own existed.
But isn’t that always the context for Christmas?
Yet in thy dark streets shineth //
The everlasting Light
Just a few nights ago, Mr. Magpie and I celebrated Christmas ourselves a bit early with a cocktail downtown followed by dinner at Gramercy Tavern. It was a not-great night for various reasons — nothing serious, just frustrating interactions and bad service and rude people and a foolishly overpacked weekend and the usual soul-deadening sights of the gritty city on the subway. (Also, I stupidly wore a floor-length green velvet dress similar to this for the occasion and spent most of the time in standing-room-only subway cars and running through the 42nd Street stop with the hem in my hand, grimacing at the mysterious liquids and stains that grace the floors and then — just when we emerged at 23rd street — I let down my guard only to see somehow had “hocked a loogie” on the steps and just…for the love of Pete! Are we animals?! You couldn’t wait ten steps and spit into the street?! You had to do it right here so someone would step right into it?! I mean, my God! Where do I live?!) In short, New York can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. Like the most inhospitable place on earth. Like a never-ending battle you never signed up to fight.
But on the taxi home, as we zipped up Park Avenue, a wreath the size of a studio apartment came into focus dead ahead of us, shining like a beacon from the front of Grand Central. And there was something about its sudden and unanticipated beauty, its charm, its improbably generous existence in a city that often feels viciously indifferent to your wellbeing and spirit, that moved me. To think that there is a line item in the Grand Central budget for a wreath — and that there are staff hours dedicated to ordering and hanging it — somehow stirred me into a weepiness I did not anticipate. Even in that monolithic building, there is Christmas cheer, a willingness to delight and welcome the Christmastime visitor–or, you know, the New York transplant worn down by the city’s inelegances.
And so there I was again, in that old see-saw of Christmas emotions, overwhelmed by its goodness and beauty by virtue of contrast.
And so I sing again:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Merry Christmas, Magpies.
+In case you’re panicking about what to wear to NYE, a few picks from shops that have quick shipping:
+A very cute diaper bag option (love that it can be monogrammed!)
+I wore these Gucci tights with the velvet dress mentioned above. I love them so much! I bought them on a lark thinking I’d wear them for a season but find they add a little interest and sauciness to anything.
+This wildly popular sweatshirt was just restocked in a pretty new color. It always sells out quickly! (I own this in ecru.)
+Guys, even the cashmere is 40% off at Polo! This is the time to invest in one of these classic cardigans for your little prince.
+Love this well-priced sweater (especially in that unexpected green?!)
+A plush robe for a little boy (love it in that emerald green color).
+Testing out these onesies from Hannah Andersson’s diffusion line for Amazon. I have been looking for some back-ups that are softer than Gerber but less expensive than 1212 (my absolute favorite), as Hill continues to outgrow everything he wears and I way underbought on the base layer front for him this season. Any other recs? Will report on The Moon and Back! Hill owned a pair of their pajamas and they were fine. Not quite as soft/snuggly or attractive in person as I’d been hoping. Thinking these onesies might be different though.
+I live in these slippers during the winter months.
+Considering buying one of these for mini for next Christmas…beautiful!