Yesterday, Library employees and visitors alike—including dozens of children who will soon have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads—gathered in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Great Hall to commemorate the winter holidays Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. After the LC Chorale opened the day’s celebrations with a festive series of songs, it was time for a special, much-anticipated event, led by none other than Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.
Scooting to the edge of the temporary stage set up at the west end of Great Hall, Dr. Hayden began by inviting the children in attendance to join her on stage. Once everyone was settled snugly in their seats, and with a child flanking either side, Dr. Hayden launched into a rollicking rendition of the classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” After the poem was finished, and with laughter and applause still in the air, the Librarian decided to further delight the crowd by leading it on jolly jaunt through Marty Rhodes Figley’s picture book Santa’s Underwear.
Dr. Hayden’s reading of Santa’s Underwear and “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—better known to most of us as “The Night Before Christmas”—extends a two-decade-long tradition established by former Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington in which the Librarian reads a holiday poem or story to children gathered in the Library’s Great Hall.
A search through Library of Congress staff publications reveals that Dr. Billington’s first Christmastime reading, of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” occurred at the December 18, 1997, holiday celebration. In attendance were children from the Library’s Little Scholars Child Development Center, along with staff and invited guests. Although the holidays are always reason enough to celebrate, the Library had even more reason than usual to be merry in 1997. After a massive ten-year renovation project, the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building had officially reopened to the public in May. Upon its restoration, Dr. Billington observed that “the building is itself a kind of giant, exuberant celebration of America,” and that year’s holiday party, with the Librarian’s starring role as poetry reader, became itself a giant, exuberant celebration of the Library.
Nearly every year between his 1997 performance and his final Christmas as Librarian in 2014, Dr. Billington read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to children, staff, and visitors. He did, however, occasionally read other works: in 2001 he read Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and in 2002 he read Chris Van Allsburg‘s The Polar Express. Similarly, while the annual reading almost always took place in the Great Hall, one exception occurred in 2008, when the holiday celebration took place in the James Madison Building’s Madison Hall.
As many From the Catbird Readers know, Dr. Billington, who retired in 2015 after serving 28 years as Librarian of Congress, died on November 20, 2018. While he may best be known in literary circles for appointing 19 of the 22 poets who as of this writing have served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, his annual reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” may well have been the literary-related role that gave him the most pleasure. In honor of Dr. Billington’s passing and to give proper acknowledgment to a little-known, but beloved, Library tradition, you’ll find below a selection of photographs taken from holiday celebrations past of both Dr. Billington and Dr. Hayden reading “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
I and my co-bloggers Rob Casper and Anne Holmes wish you very happy holidays from poetry’s catbird seat.