Clement C Moore-
The history of the
man behind 'A visit from Saint Nick', more currently
known as 'Twas the Night before Christmas'
The Reluctant Mythmaker
Truth be told, the nineteenth-century author who
bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded
St. Nicholas ("His eyes -- how they twinkled! his
dimples how merry!") was himself a dour, straitlaced
academician. As a professor of classics at the General
Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C.
Moore's most notable work prior to "A Visit from Saint
Nicholas" was a two-volume tome entitled A Compendious
Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.
Fortunately for us, the man had children.
Legend has it that Moore composed "A Visit from St.
Nicholas" for his family on Christmas Eve of 1822,
during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village. He
supposedly drew inspiration for the elfin, pot-bellied
St. Nick in his poem from the roly-poly Dutchman who
drove his sleigh that day. But from what we know of
Clement Moore, it's much more likely to suppose that he
drew his imagery from literary sources, most notably
Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History (1809) and a
Christmas poem published in 1821 called "The Children's
Friend." Irving's History, a satire on the transplanted
customs of New York's Dutch population, contained
several references to the legendary Santa Claus (Sinter
Klass in Dutch), a stern, ascetic personage
traditionally clothed in dark robes. It was a character
we would scarcely recognize as the Santa Claus we know
today, apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts
to children on Christmas Eve.
"The Children's Friend," a poem for young people,
harkened from the same tradition but also added some new
elements to the "Santeclaus" myth: the first known
references to a sleigh and reindeer. The poem begins:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you...
According to Duncan Emrich in Folklore on the American
Land (Little, Brown: 1972), when Moore sat down to
compose a Christmas poem for his own children, he took
inspiration from the details he had read in these works
- and not just those pertaining St. Nicholas himself.
From Irving and the Dutch tradition he drew St.
Nicholas, the traditional St. Nicholas. But from his
past reading of the Knickerbocker History, Moore
remembered most vividly the descriptions of the fat and
jolly Dutch burghers with their white beards, red
cloaks, wide leather belts, and leather boots. So, when
he came to write a poem for his children, the
traditional and somewhat austere St. Nicholas was
transformed into a fat and jolly Dutchman. Also, from
"The Children's Friend" of the year before, which he had
probably purchased for his own youngsters, he drew not
one lone reindeer, but created the new immortal and
Still, it seems reasonable to suppose that Moore's most
profound inspiration came not from his readings but from
a keen appreciation of his audience. He wasn't writing
for publication, but to delight his own six children. To
that end, he transformed the legendary figure of St.
Nicholas, the patron saint of children, into Santa
Claus, a fairy tale character for children. It was
perhaps Moore's greatest contribution to the tradition,
and at least partially explains Santa Claus'
overwhelming popularity in American culture ever since.
Moore, stodgy creature of academe that he was, refused
to have the poem published despite its enthusiastic
reception by everyone who read it. Evidently his
argument that it was beneath his dignity fell on deaf
ears, because the following Christmas "A Visit from St.
Nicholas" found its way into the mass media after all
when a family member cunningly submitted it to an
out-of-town newspaper. The poem was an "overnight
sensation," as we would say today, but Moore was not to
acknowledge authorship of it until fifteen years later,
when he reluctantly included it in a volume of collected
works. He called the poem "a mere trifle." The irony of
this, as Duncan Emrich points out, is that for all his
protestations, Professor Clement Clarke Moore is now
remembered for little else at all.
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