‘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.
It’s only fitting that on these two days before Christmas Eve when I am writing this column to learn about the poem we know as “The Night Before Christmas,” though its original title was “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement Clarke Moore. This favorite poem has an interesting history, not least because its author didn’t want to acknowledge ownership of the words.
Publication historyAccording to Nancy C. Marshall, retired dean of University Libraries at The College of William and Mary and collector of editions of Moore’s poem for 50 years, Moore wrote the poem in 1822 but only allowed his name to be attached to it 15 years later when it was compiled in “The New York Book of Poetry,” edited by Charles Fenno Hoffman. The poem’s first known anonymous publication, however, occurred on Dec. 23, 1823, in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel, entitled “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” In 1825 the poem was published for the first time in an almanac, “New Brunswick (N.J.) Almanack.” The more familiar title, “The Night Before Christmas,” was first used in 1851 in “American Magazine: Gems of Modern American Literature.”
One legend says that Moore wrote the poem for his six children, while another purports that a local Dutch handyman inspired Moore’s portrait of Santa Claus, the original for the image we have today, except that the earliest illustrations depict a slimmed-down, elf-like creature who could more believably slide down chimneys than could today’s stout Santa Claus. Note that the poem itself says the sleigh is “miniature” with eight “tiny reindeer”; Santa himself is “a right jolly old elf” despite having a “little round belly.”
Holograph copiesVarious accounts state that three handwritten copies of the poem are in museum collections: the Museum of the City of New York, the Strong Museum, and the New York Historical Society Library. The Strong, located in Rochester, N.Y., is also known as the National Museum of Play, which “houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play and is home to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, and the ‘American Journal of Play’.”
A fourth holograph copy, penned and signed by Moore in 1860, was sold for $280,000 at auction to the CEO of a media company, who read it to friends, relatives and business associates at a party in 2006, according to a Washington Post article.
Poetic form and authorshipThe poem is written in the meter called anapestic, which consists of two unstressed syllables and a stressed syllable, , as heard in “His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry.” Some of Moore’s hesitation in acknowledging authorship arose from his ambition to gain a scholarly reputation in Oriental and Greek literature, subjects he taught at Columbia College (now University). Also a Biblical scholar, he had published a two-volume Hebrew dictionary and written other scholarly pieces for which he hoped to be remembered. In a preface to poems by Juvenal, a Roman poet, Moore expressed a poetic philosophy:
“It should be scrupulously required, that whenever words are put together, they be assembled for some rational purpose; that if the affections be addressed, the feeling intended to be excited be one of which human nature is susceptible; that if an image be presented to the imagination, its form be distinguishable; and that if reason be called upon, something be expressed which the mind can comprehend.”
He eventually took credit for a poem that quickly became one of the most familiar and popular pieces of literature associated with Christmas.
InfluencesScholars agree that Moore’s image of St. Nicholas was probably based on Washington Irving’s character Sinter Klaus in Irving’s “A
History of New York (1809)” and on a poem, “A Child’s Friend.” One line specifically seems to have come directly from Irving: “And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose ...”
Moore’s mother was Dutch, accounting for Dutch names like “Dunder and Blixem” (“Thunder and Lightning”) for the reindeer. More importantly than what influenced Moore is that the poem influenced images Americans have of Santa Claus and the reindeer. Before Moore’s poem, Santa Claus took many forms based on the cultural backgrounds of the Dutch and European immigrants who settled here. The poem solidified the persona of the Santa Claus we envision today.
Every year since 1911 on the Sunday before Christmas, the Church of the Intercession in Manhattan holds a service in which the poem is read. Then church members process to the tomb of Clement Clarke Moore at Trinity Cemetery where Moore rests near other relatives.
Those of us who celebrate “old Christmas” have several more days to enjoy the season. We don’t put away our decorations or take down the tree until Jan. 6, Epiphany, or Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day).
Whatever your own traditions, like St. Nicholas in the poem, the Meador family hopes everyone had a “Happy Christmas.” May the new year bring love, peace, joy, and courage to overcome adversity in a year of the greatest hardships many have known.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.