One hundred and eighty-seven years ago, on December 23, 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel, and was often reprinted elsewhere with no name attached.
Clement C. Moore later acknowledged authorship, and the poem, one of the best-known verses ever written by an American, was included in an 1844 anthology of his poems at the request of his children, for whom he wrote it.
The poem is responsible for the current conception of Santa Claus, such as his physical appearance, method of transportation, the names and number of his reindeer, the night of his visit, and the idea that he brings toys to kids.
Moore was born July 15, 1779, in a large mansion on his parents’ estate in Chelsea that encompassed the area that is now 18th to 24th Streets between Eighth and Tenth Avenues in Manhattan.
He was the only child of Dr. Benjamin Moore, Episcopal bishop of New York, rector of Trinity Church, and president of Columbia College, and heiress Charity Clarke. He was educated at home and graduated first in his class from Columbia in 1798.
Moore’s gift of 60 acres of land in 1819 made possible the establishment of the General Theological Seminary. When he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822, Moore was a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the seminary.
He compiled a Hebrew lexicon, the first work of its kind in the United States, at age 30. He was 43 when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but it was not until age 65, in 1844, that he acknowledged he was the author of the poem.
The poet lived a long, productive life and died at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1863, a few days before his 84th birthday. He is buried in Trinity Cemetery at the Church of the Intercession on Upper Broadway at 155th Street in the Washington Heights area of New York City.
Clement Clarke Moore Park, located at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street in the city, is named in his honor. Today, local residents gather there on the last Sunday of Advent for a reading of his famous poem, which is also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“A Visit from St. Nicholas”
by Clement C. Moore
‘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 down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the 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 the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it 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, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top 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 hand, 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 peddler 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 of 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 bowlful 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.”