The Visit From St. Nick

‘Twas the night before Christmas and in most every home/ Our young will be listening to Clement Moore’s poem.

This week (Dec. 24) in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a stodgy academic, whose most famous work at the time was the two-volume Compendius Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, was working in his home in New York City when his wife, who was roasting Christmas turkeys for the poor at their local parish, discovered she was short one turkey.  Thus Professor Moore was sent into the snowy night to fetch another bird.

He made his journey in the common transportation of the time, a horse-drawn “sleigh,” and legend has it that Moore had an inspiration while observing the cheerful, pot-bellied, white bearded sleigh driver who took him on his errand.  With sleigh bells jingling as they glided over the snow-covered streets, Moore took out a pen and began composing a poem called “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which he read to his six children that night.

They were delighted and bragged of their father’s poem to several family members, one of whom, upon learning that Moore refused to allow the poem to be published, secretly sent it to The Troy Sentinel in Troy, New York, which published it anonymously the following Christmas.  It became an instant success.

That is the legend, and while many scholars believe its authenticity, others believe that Moore, a serious scholar himself, is more likely to have drawn from literary sources in composing his poem.  One of them would have been Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History, which describes several Dutch customs, including that of a dark-robed character called Sinter Klass, who delivers presents, and lectures, to children each Christmas.  Irving’s book also describes rotund Dutch burghers, who dressed in red cloaks, wide leather belts and black boots.  In addition, Moore might well have read another poem, “The Children’s Friend,” which was published a year earlier and describes “Old Santeclaus” on a sleigh driven by a single reindeer.

Whatever is the truth, and a combination of both is also possible, the irony was that Moore resented the celebrity his poem brought him when, reluctantly, he allowed it to be published under his own name in 1837.  He thought the poem “undignified” and a “mere trifle” when compared to his serious scholarly works.

Of which not one is in print, or even remembered, today, while “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which later became “The Night Before Christmas,” has been reprinted countless times. Indeed, for nearly 200 years Moore’s words have been the last heard by millions of children around the world before they drift happily off to sleep on Christmas Eve.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”