Clement Moore’s popular American poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, also known as Twas The Night Before Christmas, is credited with creating the jolly image of Santa Claus recognized throughout the world. Moore wrote this poem Christmas Eve, 1822, as a gift for his family. He did not plan on it being published.
There was no standardized view of St. Nick in early 19th-century America. The images ranged from the gift-giving, long-robed St. Nicholas to a cheerful, elderly man known as Father Christmas. The Puritans had banned Christmas in parts of New England due to the revelry that had been associated with it in England.
Moore was the only child of Charity Clarke, an heiress, and Dr. Benjamin Moore, Rector of Trinity Church, President of Columbia College and Episcopal Bishop of New York. He was born and raised in the family’s Chelsea estate, which included the area in Manhattan reaching from present day 18th to 24th Streets and extended from Eighth to Tenth Avenues. New York’s city limits did not go above 14th Street so the Moore family, like other wealthy families of the time, lived “in the country.”
He was educated at home as a child then graduated at the top of his class from Columbia College. His scholarly writings were about religion, languages, poetry and politics. He compiled the first Hebrew lexicon in America at the age of 30. When he wrote the poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, he was 43 years old and a respected professor of both Oriental and Greek Literature, and Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
In addition to his scholarly duties, he was a husband and father with six young children. A few months after he read the poem on Christmas Eve, a family friend submitted it anonymously to the editor of the Troy Sentinel in Troy, New York. Newspapers during that time period would print poetry and general interest articles in addition to news and advertisements. The Sentinel printed A Visit From St. Nicholas, December 23, 1823, but it didn’t appear on the regular poetry column on page two. Clement Moore’s poem appeared on page three, column five, between an article about extracting honey from a beehive and a marriage announcement.
Above the poem, the paper had an introductory paragraph from the editors. They didn’t know who wrote the words describing “that unwearied patron of children—that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness—Sante Claus,” (Santa Claus), but they hoped boys and girls, “both lads and lasses,” would accept this with their warmest wishes for a merry Christmas.
The poem was instantly popular and was reprinted four or more times within the three weeks following its debut in the Sentinel. Moore had combined his original ideas with some that he’d borrowed. His friend, Washington Irving, had written A History of New York in 1809 under the name Dietrich Knickerbocker. A portion included a description of St. Nicholas riding in a wagon piled with presents he was delivering to children. He rested for a moment, smoked his pipe, then got back on the wagon and disappeared over the treetops. In place of Irving’s wagon-riding St. Nicholas, Moore’s rode in a sleigh.
There were several other similarities but one thing, in particular, separated the two stories: Irving’s St. Nicholas arrived on Christmas Day whereas Moore’s delivered presents on Christmas Eve. That small change was significant because it took the focus away from the Christmas Day controversy of reverence versus secular celebration. A jolly Santa Claus with eight tiny reindeer was not only acceptable, but accepted.
Even after reprints appeared in various newspapers, the author’s name was still unknown. Editors didn’t have to get permission to reprint something. It wasn’t until 1837, when the poem was included in The New York Book of Poetry , edited by Charles Fenno Hoffman, that Clement Clarke Moore’s name was listed as the author. Moore, himself, finally acknowledged his authorship publicly for the first time in 1844, in his poetry anthology book, Poems. The poem became so popular, that it was printed in both Union and Confederate newspapers, December 1861, during the Civil War.
Various editors also took liberties with the title and some of the text. Sometimes, those changes were typographical errors; other times, the changes were the result of editing. Two of the reindeer names have changed from the original. Dunder and Blixem became Donder and Blitzen (also Blixen and Blizen). Scholars have debated these two names due to the Dutch influence in New York. The title was also been changed frequently during the 19th century: Santa Claus, Christmas Times, Annual Visit of St. Nicholas, just to name a few.
Moore was embarrassed that his children’s poem overshadowed his scholarly works but that single, popular poem gave a jolly Santa Claus to the world and made him acceptable. The author died at the age of 83, just five days short of his 84th birthday. He is buried in Trinity Cemetery at Church of the Intercession, 155th Street and Broadway in New York City. Every year, the church has a Clement Clarke Moore Festival the Sunday before Christmas which includes a reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas.
By Cynthia Collins