December 25, 2013
A Visit From St. Nicholas

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

It has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American.” It has been reproduced and re-imagined in countless newspapers, magazines, films, radio and television shows. Its popularity and influence are undeniable. And its iconic opening line is instantly recognizable to virtually everyone in the English-speaking world – “T’was the night before Christmas ...”

Despite its fame, the poem’s author – Clement Clarke Moore – is hardly a household name. Born in New York City on July 15, 1779 – in the middle of the Revolutionary War – Moore was the only child of Bishop Benjamin Moore and Charity Clarke Moore.

Clement’s grandfather – Major Thomas Clarke – owned a large Manhattan estate in the days before the city overwhelmed the island. Clement would later inherit the estate, which his grandfather had named “Chelsea.”  Today, Manhattan’s large West Side neighborhood still bears that name.

Moore graduated first in his class from Columbia in 1798, then later earned a master’s degree there before he began teaching Oriental and Greek Literature. He eventually became a professor of Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

In 1813, when Clement was 34, he married 19-year-old Catharine Elizabeth Taylor. It was, apparently, a happy marriage – they had 9 children – but not a long one. Sadly, Catharine died in 1830; Clement never remarried.

Throughout his career, Moore published numerous scholarly works, including a two volume Hebrew dictionary. And he wrote poetry, including the poem that gave him lasting – although unintended – fame.

The legend concerning the poem’s origins goes something like this: On Christmas Eve of 1822, during a sleigh-ride home from a shopping trip into town, Moore was inspired by the sleigh bells to write a poem for his children. He decided to make the story about a visit from St. Nicholas. It’s said that he modeled his version of St. Nick on the old Dutchman who did odd jobs around Chelsea.

When he read the poem to his children after dinner that night, they were spellbound. And there it might have ended – a happy little verse written by a loving father for the delight of his children. Moore had no plans to publish the poem.

But a visiting family member was as enthralled as the children. She took a copy that she later gave to a friend from Troy, New York. The next year, the friend submitted the poem to the editor of the Troy Sentinel.

The editor, recognizing a gem, printed it – anonymously – as “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” on December 23, 1823. After that, the poem took off like Santa’s reindeer clearing the treetops, and it never stopped.

It was so instantly popular, four other papers published it within a few weeks – after Christmas. In succeeding years, it began appearing in newspapers and magazines everywhere.

When Moore learned of the poem’s publication, it “caused him chagrin and regret.” He felt that the poem – which he’d meant just for his family – was a “mere trifle,” beneath his dignity as a scholar.

Although various publishers began attributing it to Moore around 1837, he didn’t acknowledge authorship for 22 years after he’d first read it to his family on Christmas Eve. In 1844, he finally claimed it when he included the poem in a collection of his poetry at the insistence of his then-grown children.

Regardless of Moore’s critical view, his little poem had an impact on our culture that went well beyond some rhyming words in a newspaper. It wasn’t just an instant sensation; it changed the way that Americans celebrated Christmas.

The earliest stories about St. Nicholas depicted him as a rather stern fellow who arrived – typically on Christmas Day – with gifts, but also to dispense punishment to naughty children. The old St. Nick was skinny, wore a bishop’s miter and robes, and had only one, unnamed reindeer to pull his sleigh.

Moore, in a single – unplanned – stroke, created a new model for Christmas. He provided Santa with eight flying reindeer and gave them all names. Moore’s Santa bounds down the chimney on Christmas Eve – not Christmas Day – carrying a sack filled with toys, “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,” his beard “white as the snow.” And this Santa “had a broad face and a little round belly/ That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum says that “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared at a time “when the focus of Christmas was moving from adult revelry to domestic contentment.” Moore’s poem “reinforced this movement.” It played a formative role in shaping the modern American Christmas, helped recast St. Nicholas as a jovial elf, and turned Christmas into a time for giving gifts to children.

Through the years, pop culture has copied and parodied the poem in multiple ways. One of my favorites came from a classic 1968 Peanuts comic strip. Sally Brown – Charlie Brown’s little sister who never quite knew what was going on – attempted to recite the poem from memory. She hadn’t gotten very far when she said, “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Jack Nicklaus soon would be there.”

On July 10, 1863 – in the middle of the Civil War – Clement Moore died at Newport, Rhode Island. He was just days away from his 84th birthday. He was eventually buried at Trinity Cemetery, in New York City. Each December people gather there at the chapel to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and march in a lantern-lit procession to lay a wreath at his grave.

Late in life, Moore produced four handwritten copies of the poem. Despite what he believed about his “little trifle,” the copies are among the most valuable documents in American history. In 1997, one of them sold at auction for $211,000.

His little poem, that had such humble beginnings, now occupies a perch as lofty as St. Nick flying away in his sleigh, exclaiming “ere he drove out of sight/ ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.’”