We all know The Night Before Christmas, the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore. It’s a beautiful fable of the holiday season. But what can it tell us about human behaviour and how we analyse it?
In this post, our BrainJuicer Behaviour Change Consultancy team apply our Behavioural Model – with its three areas of Environmental, Social, and Personal influences on behaviour – to the events of the poem. Let’s see what conclusions they draw.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care”: Dropping down the chimney and filling stockings is a System 1 decision for Santa – something habitual. And so the children have gone out of their way to make it fun, fast, and easy for him by arranging the decision environment so that once in the room there are few barriers to stocking fillment – in the same way supermarkets often stock convenience goods very near the entrance.
“Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below”: The narrator can identify Santa because his environment is clean (snowy white) and well-lit (by the moon). Lighting is incredibly important in framing decisions – think of the different effects the lighting in bars has to the lighting in pharmacies.
“His clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.”: Santa’s routine is habitual – he arrives, goes to the roof, comes down the chimney, gets sooty, delivers his toys and goes. This poses a problem for the behavioural santa-ologist – wouldn’t be an easier and more efficient process if Santa came in the door? If we were analysing the poem for a competitor of Santa this is the point where we might suggest an intervention to explore this idea further.
“Twas the night before Christmas”: Actually this isn’t the title of the poem – it’s called A Visit From Saint Nicholas. But in the same way that famous quotes and sayings are often a socially-agreed consensus version, not the original version, this title has shifted over time. Brand claims and concepts are subject to a similar storytelling process, incidentally – the crowd finds the best version (or ignores it entirely). This can work against a product – think about fizzy drinks and their, quite false, effects on teeth left in a glass overnight.
“Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”: Silence is important throughout the poem, and here it’s established as a deep social norm for Christmas Eve. Santa himself breaks this norm – the clatter of his sleigh is what awakes the narrator – then moves to reinforce it by putting a finger to his nose later on. New behaviour is often created when norms and habits start to break down, and brands should try and reinforce them (or help break them) accordingly. Stay wedded to a norm and you can be left behind – Santa is not now dressed head to foot in fur.
“I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.”: Classic copycat behaviour – Saint Nicholas’ laugh has also just been described. An awful lot of our decisions are made by copying others.
“While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”: Something has primed the children and framed their expectations – but it is now up to Brand Santa to deliver.
“Away to the window I flew like a flash”: The narrator’s behaviour when he hears Santa is instinctive – typically System 1. It’s also perhaps reckless – what if the noise on the lawn is made by robbers? As we’ll see, he might find a way to post-rationalise his system 1 decision.
“I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick”: System 1 is all about making decisions that come plausibly to mind, and that looks to be what’s happening here. But another possibility presents itself: is the narrator post-rationalising his decision to rush to the the window, regardless of risk? (“Of course I knew at once it was Santa”) It’s important to note that Santa never identifies himself – brands gain their power via emotion, not brand linkage or messages.
“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly”: System 1 is strongly metaphoric – faced with a baffling occurrence (flying reindeer) it tends to understand it via metaphor (a bit like leaves). This, and the power of System 2 to integrate unusual events into a narrative, is why the narrator never once says “WTF, those reindeer are flying.”
“Come Comet and Cupid! Come Donner and Blitzen!”: Here we start to see one of the problems with the poem – it’s recalled after the events, rather than in-the-moment. We have a tendency to recall events with a false accuracy – giving specifics, when pressed, which we did not actually witness. Hence the narrator gets eight once-heard reindeer names exactly right – or rather doesn’t, since in the original publication these last two were called Dunder and Blitzem. Later he claims to recall “every hoof” – a suspiciously exact 32. Overall emotional recall would have been a better bet.
“His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!”: When presented with eyes we tend to be drawn to look at those first, and we are very quick to detect and judge the emotional states of others – they are among first things the narrator tells us about Saint Nick (after the clothing, which thanks to the chimney descent he will have seen first). Emotional impressions are stronger than rational ones.
“Merry Christmas to All, and to All A Good Night”: Santa understands the value of ending an experience positively – the Peak-End effect suggests this is one of two things we carry with us in our memory. And so this is probably the poem’s most famous line. One we’d echo whole-heartedly - Merry Christmas!
To learn more about our Behavioural Model, and how it can help your real-world business needs, email our Behaviour Change Consultancy team at [email protected]
(The full poem is below – find some more behavioural examples yourself and let us know – a bottle of champagne for the best one!)
A VISIT FROM ST NICHOLAS
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 our brains 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, 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!"
Tom is Digital Culture Officer at BrainJuicer. Read more from them in our Clubhouse.