You have to hand it to the English: they know how to do Christmas right. Maybe it has to do with their respect for tradition, maybe with their sense of occasion, maybe with their aptitude for pageantry, and maybe with their compulsion, for all that, not to take anything too seriously. It helps that they also produce performers of the highest caliber, especially of the oratorical variety: Monty Python’s John Cleese, for instance, or man of letters and all-around entertaining personality Stephen Fry. And so today, with its titular eve nearly here, we give you both of those Englishmen’s renditions of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Fry’s reading at the top of the post, which comes with orchestral backing, adheres closely to Clement Clarke Moore’s original 1823 text. The poem, for those who’ve never spent Christmas in an English-speaking country, tells of a father awakened in the middle of the night by none other than Santa Claus, come to deliver his family’s presents. More recently, Fry narrated another story of Santa Claus in “Santa Forgot,” an animated promotional video for Alzheimer’s Research UK that uses the beloved figure glimpsed so vividly in Moore’s poem to raise awareness of dementia and the research dedicated to curing it.
In his reading of “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” just above, John Cleese modernizes the story, freighting it with references to safety belts, flat-screen televisions, and Apple computers — and ending with Santa Claus captured by the father: “So he now lives with us, locked up in the cellar. We go down each day to see the old fellow and get our new presents. And we ate the reindeer, so we’re sorry but Christmas is canceled next year.” Cleese has a tendency to display such irreverence to the holiday. “So sad to see u end with a tirade against Christmas,” tweeted someone who’d attended a live show of his and Eric Idle’s last month in Arizona. “Not against Christmas,” Cleese fired back, “against its commercial exploitation. Big difference, which the rest of the audience understood.”
Nothing like a bracing shot of English wit to treat an overdose of commercialism, especially of the powerful American variety. But for all the mastery of Christmas on the other side of the pond, Clarke Moore, an American, defined the very character of Santa Claus in the popular imagination — a spry old gentleman with rose-like cheeks and a cherry-line nose, a beard “as white as the snow,” and “a little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.” “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” originally titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” remains quite possibly the best-known poem ever written by an American. But wherever in the world one reads them, Santa Claus’ final words, and the poem’s, still resonate: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.