The enchanting poem by Clement Clarke Moore has captured the hearts of generations, becoming a part of so many family traditions on Christmas Eve. As is so often the case, the story behind the story is just as fascinating.
The story of Saint Nicholas through history and how he was transformed into Santa Claus is explored in our Need to Know episode here and Clement Clarke Moore has a significant part to play in this journey.
Clement Clarke Moore was born in Chelsea, New York in 1779 and was a professor of Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823, Moore was first attributed as the writer in 1837 and although he first refused to confirm or deny it was his work, ostensibly to protect his reputation as a professor although from 1844 onwards he included the poem in anthologies of his works. The poem has often been considered as "the best known verses ever written by an American".
A legend was born
Moore is understood to have composed the poem while on a sleigh ride. Inspiration for Saint Nicholas was drawn from a Dutch handyman and made use of elements of the writing of his friend Washington Irving. He made a key change to this work which would have a profound affect on the Christmas timetable for children the world over. He moved the visit to Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At this time Christmas was growing in popularity as the genteel holiday of the season but Protestant groups still rejected the event as "Catholic ignorance and deception". By moving the events of his poem to the night before he sidestepped any awkward theological debate and then shifted focus of the holiday from religious contemplation to children and the family.
The New York set immediately embraced the poem and the delicate shift in the Christmas celebration that it introduced. The poem gives us the sleigh riding gift bringer, being pulled by reindeer and the names of the reindeer even come from the poem. Although Donner and Blitzen were originally named Dunder and Blixem, which were mild Dutch swear words like "Gosh" or "Darn!" which were still in common use in New York, which had been New Amsterdam until 1664. The names Donner and Blitzen are Dutch for Thunder and Lightening. Although Rudolph arrived as late as 1939 but was almost named Reginald.
The poem, originally titled "A visit from Saint Nicholas" has been attributed to many as the work of Henry Livingston, Jr. Livingston was a poet and his children claimed they recalled him reading them the poem as early as 1908.
It is possible that the family recall another, albeit similar poem, that was penned by Livingston although historical references in the poem suggest it could not have been written before 1822. Despite relentless research and academic argument, including a 2016 study by MacDonald P. Jackson, emeritus professor of English Literature at University of Auckland, an expert in authorship, felt it was most likely it was Livingston who was the author. There is a problem with this position. Livingston never once claimed authorship. He had no reason to shy away from it like Moore may have done. Reverend David Butler who initially showed the poem to the editor of the Sentinel, was a relative of 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, DONNER 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!