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What is Santa saying with his body language?

Patti Wood. MA, CSP
Body Language Expert and Professional Speaker
A nonverbal analysis of Santa’s nonverbal cues in the poem,
"The Night before Christmas"

On Christmas Eve, when I was a little girl my mother would get out a very special tall storybook covered with snowy glitter and read, the poem "The Night Before Christmas."

Clement Clarke Moore composed "A Visit from St. Nicholas" on December 24, 1822 and though there were other nonverbal descriptions of St, Nick, the iconic image of Santa in this poem is stuck firmly into our consciousness like leftover Christmas cookie dough.

Let’s have some fun and look at nonverbal cues St Nick shows in this famous Christmas poem. The poem opens on Christmas Eve on a house top roof with Santa described as a "little old driver, so lively and quick. His advanced age, makes us think of him as comforting and fatherly but the nonverbal description of his behavior makes us also see him youthful, vital and full of energy as well. He is, "... lively and quick." Therefore, we know he has enough energy to defy the boundaries of time and space and deliver toys to every boy and girl in one night!

Next, Santa is heard whistling, shouting, and calling his reindeer by name. If he were described as shouting, we probably would see Santa as a rather grouchy, aggressive guy. After all, you really shouldn’t yell at animals. However, because he knows and says every reindeer’s name we have a perception of him as a warm and caring guy who loves his reindeers and shouting becomes something he does because he is excited and needs to make sure each name is heard over the din of the sleigh bells. Whistling is also a revealing nonverbal activity. The combination of the shouting and whistling tell us Santa is filled with joy and gusto as he calls his beloved reindeers to action. The powerful paralanguage acts of shouting and whistling also assures the little boys and girls hearing the poem that Santa will get to their houses in time for them to get their presents Christmas morning.

Then St. Nick comes down the chimney, "with a bound." I love that nonverbal behavior. The action, "bounding" makes me see this red and white decked man bouncing from house to house as if the fireplace was a trampoline. This nonverbal cue also lets us know that he is a fun guy having a good time at work. He is as a daredevil. He rides through the air in a sleigh and then jumps down a chimney without a parachute. Yes, Santa lives on the edge. Each and every time he jumps he risks landing in a fire! In fact, these nonverbal cues are evidence that Santa is a truly bearded superhero.

Though he is not wearing the typical super hero outfit, instead, "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot." Ok, I will admit there are mythic superheroes in the fur and leather set; Shera, Thor, Grey Skull and my all-time fav, Tarzan. The fur gives him some primal superpowers. Visualizing Santa in shear spandex, tights, and a cape, "Not so much"

Please note that Santa is not described as wearing red and white is this poem, even though I gave him those super hero colors two paragraphs ago. Red and White were the colors set into our Santa conscious through artists’ depictions in the 1920’s, most notably by an artist at Harpers. For trivia buffs this was long before Coca Cola created its string of ads picturing the red and white Clause. Though trivia websites often quote Coke soft drink company as the creators of his candy cane colored suit, Coca Cola give us a larger man sized Santa rather than the little elf fellow of this poem.

Red and white make a good dashing through the snow costume. Red is nonverbally a traditional power color. The color red is associated with strength, force, power, control and leadership, stimulation, warmth, excitement, good health, physical energy, and love. In addition, white is associated with protection, purity, truth and sincerity. However, the purity from the white was in his heart not on his sleeve, because; the poem says, "his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot." Don’t you just love that detail? It makes us see him as a playful guy who is willing to get dirty.

In that same line, you read that the bundle of toys is, "flung" on his back. He doesn’t carry the bundle like a burden, but instead it is flung with joy, the same way a kid would carry his baseball gear to a game or her camping stuff on an outdoor adventure.

As an expert on smiling, I love the next description. "His eyes -- how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow."

I especially like this description. As a child as I heard each facial feature I would touch my own eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth along with all the other listeners and we would laugh. Who knows, this may have been the beginning of my love for body language!

If you read my nonverbal articles on eyes and smiling on my website or read the chapter on eyes and or smiling in my body language book you know that twinkling implies that the eyes are pulled up at the side and there are little smile wrinkles around the eye. These facial cues indicate real happiness. The mouth drawn up like a bow puts St. Nick’s mouth in smiling kiss position. We also have the wonderful description of his broad face. In face reading, also known also known as "Personaligy" a broad face (the height and width of the face are similar measurements) indicates someone with a confident nature, someone who has a big full picture of life, loves adventure, and has strong influencing abilities. The perfect guy to manage toy production and keep the elves motivated at the North Pole. He is also the person to deliver toys to the good girls and boys all over the world without a GPS. The smile combined with an open face that shows friendliness.

Let us skip the stump of pipe and smoke, realizing that Something Santa did before the surgeon general put out the tobacco memo. Instead, let’s skip down to the next part of the poem the description of St. Nick’s tummy, "A little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly." This combined with his description as, "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf," Actually conjures up images of cute a cuddly laughing baby. We cannot help but smile. Santa is full of satisfaction and happy. He is not starving on the Adkins diet, craving bread.

Santa then gives traditional nonverbal cues to show he is harmless and not going to attack with, "A wink of his eye and a twist of his head." Winking is a way of softening what could be threatening continuous eye contact. That is why I recommend it in my chapter on flirting in my new first impressions book... The head tilt is a softening cue showing "I’m harmless." Together these body language cues let the narrator of the story who just saw a stranger who just bounded into his living room carrying a sack is a charming interloper, not a dangerous intruder planning to abscond with the silver.

Santa does not speak but gets right to work putting out the toys. Anyone who has read the latest research on the costs of multitasking knows this makes Santa not only a hard worker but a wise man as well. Santa is a "Driver" type on the DISC personality inventory, manly man who gets the job done quickly.

Then he shows his super powers again by, "laying his finger aside of his nose and giving a nod" and rising up the chimney. When I was in first grade and saw the movie about the first Super Nanny Mary Poppins, I watched her go up in the air by laughing as everyone sang, "I love to laugh." I thought Santa must have taught her the laugh to levitate trick.

And isn’t it interesting that he touches his nose before he rises, just like the 60’s housewife witch Samantha wiggled her nose on the TV show Bewitched. The nose has its own nonverbal symbolism so,"... putting his finger aside of his nose." indicates that Santa is doing something special and secretive.

Then St. Nick springs to his sleigh, whistles, and shouts his farewell leaving us with a final nonverbal description of his confidence and omnipotence.
I love this poem and I love the Iconic Image of Santa it invokes. It is an image I have taken to bed with me on many a Christmas Eve. It is a wonderful comforting image for all good little boys and girls around the world.

Take time to re-read this wonderful poem during this holiday season.

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
by Clement Clarke Moore
or Henry Livingston


'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."