3. Clement Clarke Moore

In 1821 a New York printer named William Gilley issued a poem about a "Santeclaus" who dressed all in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer. Gilley's "Sante," however, was very short. In 1822, Saint Nicholas' American transformation was given a more definitive description by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore was born on July 15, 1779, in a large mansion, on his parents' Chelsea estate that encompassed the area that is now 18th to 24th Streets between Eighth and Tenth Avenues in Manhattan. The house itself was located at what is now Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street. He was the only child of heiress Charity Clarke and Dr. Benjamin Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York, Rector of Trinity Church, and President of Columbia College. 

Moore was educated at home in his early youth and graduated first in his class from Columbia in 1798. He began a master's degree three years later, preparing for the ministry, though he was never ordained. All this time, he wrote a political pamphlet, an argument for Episcopalianism, a textbook for those learning Hebrew. Like almost every educated man of his time, Moore also wrote poetry, some for literary magazines like The Portfolio, some for A New Translation with Notes of the Third Satire of Juvenal, to which are added Miscellaneous Poems, Original and Translated, which he wrote with John Duer. ("In the literary reviews, of the year 1806," one scholar admits, "we cannot find that two new poets were hailed with enthusiasm." [Hosking, p. 17])

In 1813, he married Catharine Elizabeth Taylor (who died in 1830). She was 19 and he was 34. By the early 1820s, when Moore was appointed part-time professor of Greek and Oriental literature at the General Theological Seminary, the Moore couple and their children were living with Moore's widowed mother at "Chelsea," his childhood home, a rural estate rapidly becoming less rural as New York City stretched north. Already, Ninth Avenue had been dug right through the estate; soon "Chelsea" was bounded by avenues and streets: by Eighth Avenue on the east and Tenth Avenue on the west, by Nineteenth Street on the south and Twenty-fourth Street on the north.

The little poem that Moore wrote on Christmas Eve in 1822 "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" (also called "A Visit from St. Nicholas", more commonly known today by its opening line, "'Twas the Night before Christmas...") was to entertain his children. It was frivolous and probably didn't strike him as important. More important were the children themselves - the family eventually included nine - and his work as professor at the General Theological Seminary and as trustee at Columbia College, which granted him an honorary LL. D. in 1829. 

There are several versions of how the poem came to be written and published. The favorite story has Moore inspired by the tinkling music of horse bells to write a poem for his children, to read to them on Christmas Eve, 1822. He chose as his subject a visit from St. Nicholas, modeling the saint - so legend says - on the old Dutchman who did odd jobs at "Chelsea." 

One story states that he wrote it simply to entertain his three daughters, while another states that he wrote it for his son Robert. Robert liked to ride his pony, Lightening, in the woods and one day he and his pony took a spill. Since his pony had broken two legs, they shot it. Robert loved his pony so much, so he did not try to get well, and each day he called pitifully for Lightening. His father had been working on a dictionary before the accident and thought if only he could write a Christmas story that would interest his son. He had written many books for college students, but never a children’s book. He finished writing “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas eve. As he started to read, a few lines at a time, Robert responded with a tiny smile and by the time he was through reading the Christmas poem, he said, “Read it again.” Again his father read the story of a visit from St. Nicholas. This time when Moore finished reading the holiday poem, Robert asked if their tree was up. When his father said it was, Robert asked to see it.

Regardless of what it was to actually prompt Moore to write the poem, his children were enchanted. Moore was a private person and the poem was for his household. He did not intend that the poem be published, but a relative learned of the poem from the children and copied it. It was copied again by a friend from Troy, New York, Miss Harriet Butler, who sent it to the editor of the Troy Sentinel. The editor knew a good poem when he read it, and it was as printed anonymously in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823, as "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas". When a copy was sent to Moore, one scholar notes, "it is said that the publication of the verses caused him chagrin and regret." (Hosking, p. 25).

It was popular from the start. Early nineteenth-century editors of newspapers and magazines, it has been said, read rivals' works with scissors in hand; and many authors discovered how popular they were by how quickly their work was appropriated by other periodicals. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was no exception. It was hugely popular with editors in Philadelphia where four almanacs reprinted the poem in 1824 and where the Saturday Evening Post also printed it.

Its  first appearance in a book in The New York Book of Poetry, in 1837, and it was part of Saint Nicholas's book, for all good boys and girls - also called Kriss Kringle's Book - which Thomas, Cowperthwait, & Co. collected in 1842. In 1830, the poem was illustrated by Myron King when it was printed in New York as a "carrier's address," a greeting - often a broadside - from a periodical to its subscribers. In its first fifty years, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appeared in countless newspapers and magazines - including Parley's Magazine and Robert Merry's Museum, both founded by "Peter Parley's" creator.

It was not until 1837 that Moore acknowledged that he had penned the piece. In 1844 he formally included it with his poetry entitled Poems, published at the request of his children. Over 150 years later, it is the most read and memorized selection in all of American literature, and it is often parodied as well.

Through the years, many publishers have offered Moore's poem as an illustrated book for children. The first one was published in 1848 by Henry M. Onderdonk, a New York printer and bookseller, and a friend of Clement Moore. C. Boyd did eight wood engravings depicting sleeping children, stockings hanging, the Christmas elf driving his miniature team through streets and over rooftops of a quaint old-fashioned Dutch New York, and other familiar scenes to every illustrated edition since. These were put together in an eight-page pamphlet prepared as "a present for good little boys and girls." Only two know copies of that paperback publication have survived.

Although he was somewhat embarassed that his scholarly works were overshadowed by a frivolous poem, he will forever be remembered as the person who truly gave St. Nicholas to the world. His poem is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although some of Moore's imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped to popularize the now-familiar idea of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve — in "a miniature sleigh" led by eight flying reindeer, whom he also named — leaving presents for deserving children. 

"An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," created a new and immediately popular American icon. The poem quickly became popular around the United States and over the years has spawned counless parodies. Unlike the European Saint Nicholas who was feared by naughty children, Clement Moore inadvertently Americanized the Old World Saint Nicholas, turning him into "jolly Saint Nick, a plump, happy-go-lucky elf with a sleigh full of toys and eight flying reindeer.

Clement Clark Moore lived a long and productive life. He died at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1863, just short of his 84th birthday. He was buried in Trinity Cemetery, at the Church of the Intercession, in New York, New York.

Bibliography

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 my 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 a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he 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 leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop 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 pedler 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 on 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 bowl full 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!”  

Source: Random House Book of Poetry for Children
(Random House Inc., 1983)


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