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Classic tale etched in her memory

Young Beatrice Becker would sit enthralled as her teacher read “The Night Before Christmas” at the Middle Creek country school. “I loved the story,” Bea Brown said from her living room just a mile or so from the site of that country school near Granite Falls. “But it was during the Depression, so I’d just hear it in school. We didn’t have a lot of books.” So Bea made sure that her children, beginning with the eldest, Gwen, had the story book. That was the unofficial start of a rather extensive collection of “The Night Before Christmas” story books. “I have 80 or 90 books now,” Bea said with a smile. Bea’s collection “officially” began in the 1970s at the Hallmark store in Redwood Falls. The late Barb Vickerman, store owner, had a collection of old Christmas books which Bea had admired during a tour of Christmas-decorated homes. Later she gave Bea a Hallmark pop-up version of “The Night Before Christmas.” “I bought my second book down at the cheese house in Morton,” she said. That particular book was illustrated by Tasha Tudor. “I got so I could recognize her work anyplace,”’ Bea added. “Every book she illustrates has little arches framing each picture.” The oldest book in her collection, an Everett Shinn Illustrated Edition, dates from the 1940s. Bea collects the story books from every era, with one of her favorites being one illustrated by Penny Ives which was purchased in Great Britain by Bea’s daughter, Gwen.  That version has little tabs on the side of each page that the reader can move to change the picture. Each page also features little doors for the curious reader to open.  Another favorite, a gift from daughter, Roxanne, is a bedtime shadow book. The reader shines a flashlight through the “window” on each page to project the illustration on the ceiling. Until just a few years ago, Bea and her husband, Dick, lived in a two-story farmhouse; at Christmastime, Bea would decorate every room in the house. Part of her book collection was displayed in the living room on an antique desk, the rest marched up and down the staircase, leaving just enough room for the couple to climb the stairs when time for their “long winter’s nap.” Another special book in Bea’s collection is not a “Night Before Christmas” rendition but rather one by storyteller Dinghy Sharp, great-great-granddaughter of Clement Moore, the gentleman most often credited with creating the poem.  It describes that time – nearly 180 years ago – when Christmas was celebrated without the help of discount stores and malls, but rather “while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” In those days, Sharp related, fruit was rolled in sugar to preserve it. Fresh plums were generously glazed, then wrapped in fabric and dried.  Months later, it had become “delicious, jeweled candy called sugar-plums.” A century and a half later, as Bea’s friends and neighbors learned of her book collection, she was often asked to speak about the poem at various Christmas gatherings. Among the information Bea found in her research, was the nugget that Clement Moore never published his poem, nor did he write it down. Moore created the poem in 1822 to fulfill the Christmas wish of a new story for his six-year-old daughter, Charity, who was ill with tuberculosis. Despite urging of family members, Moore refused to write the poem down, preferring to recite it from memory. A year later, a cousin secretly sent it to the Troy, New York Sentinel and it became a huge success. Moore, however, never received any money for the poem and while he was upset over the publication, it wasn’t because he wasn’t paid – it was the fact that the poem had become famous. Clement Moore was a renown scholar who taught Greek, Latin and ancient Hebrew at Columbia University. He wished to be known for this scholarly work, not for a Christmas story composed for his daughter. That wish was not to be, as the name Clement Moore will be forever associated with jolly St. Nicholas and his midnight visit to a northeastern home. While Moore was not seeking such fame, his descendants   should be pleased that time and tradition have been good to Moore’s poem – it has yet to be altered. “The story has not changed,” Bea said. “I recorded several of those recordable story books last year and they talk about St. Nicholas and his pipe.” But – in the interest of the younger generation’s health – the accompanying picture no longer shows “the stump of a pipe … held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath…” however, we can still hear “him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night’.”

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