'Twas the Night Before Christmas

The Nancy H. Marshall "A Visit from St. Nicholas" Collection of Clement Clark Moore's Immortal Poem
December 4, 2018 to January 6, 2019
Illustration of St. Nicholas in 1840 printing of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in Poets of America
Appearing here as part of an anthology of American poetry, Chapman’s illustration of Moore’s poem depicts Santa wearing a feathered cap, a fur coat, and smoking his signature pipe. This is the first illustrated version of the poem in a book and only the second time it was illustrated at all.

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" in Poets of America: Illustrated by One of Her Painters
Clement C. Moore (1779-1863)
Illustrated by J. G. Chapman (1808-1889)
New York, 1840

Most people today know Clement Clarke Moore’s enchanting tale of the mysterious Christmas Eve visitor, St. Nicholas. A noted theologian and biblical scholar, Moore (1779-1863) wrote this classic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in 1823. Nancy H. Marshall (1932-2018) started collecting editions of Moore’s poem, today better known as The Night before Christmas, over 45 years ago.

At first, Marshall bought inexpensive books to fill her children’s stockings and decorate her home for Christmas. Over time, her collection became more comprehensive as she acquired both rare and early editions and contemporary twentieth-century publications. After having spent more than a decade as the dean of William & Mary Libraries, Marshall began donating her collection to Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center in 2005. Today, students, scholars, and visitors young and old enjoy the many treasures of the Nancy H. Marshall “A Visit from St. Nicholas” Collection.




Image of St. Nicholas from 1904 edition of The Night Before Christmas
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Santa’s portrayals began to take on the iconic form we know today: the full flowing beard, classic cap, and jacket – shown here in striking black and white.

The Night Before Christmas and Other Popular Stories for Children: Handsomely Illustrated
Clement C. Moore (1779-1863)
Illustrator unknown
Chicago, 1904

This exhibit of Nancy H. Marshall’s extensive collection, a yearly tradition here at Swem Library, features nineteenth-century illustrations of St. Nicholas, who by the time Moore wrote his poem, had become interchangeable with Santa Claus in the United States. According to the New York Historical Society, “the modern Santa was born in the imagination of Clement Clarke Moore,” but as these selected works demonstrate, the evolution of the modern Santa was a gradual one. Lively and fascinating, and a bit different from our modern conceptions, the illustrations highlight the figure’s transformation from a mischievous little imp to the jolly, bearded Santa we know today.  


Photos of the exhibit are available at W&M Libraries on Flickr.

Curator: Henry Prown, Special Collections Exhibits Apprentice and PhD Candidate in American Studies
Exhibit Design: Abram Clear '21, SCRC Graphics Student Assistant
Fabrication and Installation: Jennie Davy, Exhibits Manager; and Henry Prown