Clement Clarke Moore and “A Visit from St. Nicholas”by Pat Pflieger
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” is now so much a part of Christmas that it’s difficult to remember that it didn’t always exist. Since the poem was first published in 1823, it has been reprinted in everything from almanacs to advertisements; it’s been dramatized, satirized, parodied, and set to music. It’s been published in newspapers, recited on stage, retold on film, read over radio, performed on television, and posted on the Internet. And especially it’s been read: to countless children nestled all snug on adult laps, by countless children poring over the pictures in a book.
The first children to enjoy it were those of Clement Clarke Moore. Moore himself was an only child, born on July 15, 1779, to wealthy parents who allowed him to develop a talent for languages and an ear for music. By the time he was an adult, he was proficient in French, Latin, Italian, Hebrew, and Greek; and played the organ and the violin. Moore graduated from Columbia College in 1798, at the head of his class, and began a master’s degree three years later, preparing for the ministry, though he was never ordained. All this time, he wrote: a political pamphlet, an argument for Episcopalianism, a textbook for those learning Hebrew. Like almost every educated man of his time, Moore also wrote poetry, some for literary magazines like The Port folio, some for A New Translation with Notes of the Third Satire of Juvenal, to which are added Miscellaneous Poems, Original and Translated, which he wrote with John Duer. (“In the literary reviews, of the year 1806,” one scholar admits, “we cannot find that two new poets were hailed with enthusiasm.” [Hosking; p. 17])
In 1813, he married Catharine Elizabeth Taylor; she was 19, he was 34. By the early 1820s, when Moore was appointed part-time professor of Greek and Oriental literature at the General Theological Seminary, the Moores and their children were living with Moore’s widowed mother at “Chelsea,” his childhood home, a rural estate rapidly becoming less rural as New York City stretched north. Already, Ninth Avenue had been dug right through the estate; soon “Chelsea” was bounded by avenues and streets: by Eighth Avenue on the east and Tenth Avenue on the west, by Nineteenth Street on the south and Twenty-fourth Street on the north.
The little poem Moore wrote in 1822 to entertain his children on Christmas Eve probably didn’t strike him as important. More important were the children themselves—the family eventually included nine—and his work as professor at the General Theological Seminary and as trustee at Columbia College, which granted him an honorary LL. D. in 1829. To Moore’s consternation, the family’s poem was printed and reprinted, passing from newspaper to newspaper, and from newspaper to almanac. It was reprinted anonymously, though the editor of the Troy Sentinel hinted at Moore’s identity in 1829. Moore’s name was placed on “A Visit from St. Nicholas” when it was printed with other poems by him in the New-York Book of Poetry in 1837; he officially acknowledged it as his own when it appeared in his collection titled Poetry in 1844.
By then, Moore’s life had changed drastically. Two daughters had died; Catharine died in 1830. New York City was pressing in all around: “Chelsea” was surrounded by houses and shops, and in the late 1840s, steam trains rumbled past the property. The old house was torn down in the 1850s; and Moore built a two-family home for himself and a daughter not far from the site. He retired from the Seminary in 1850, devoting himself now to philanthropy and to his family.
Moore died on July 10, 1863, while visiting his daughter at Newport, Rhode Island. The body was brought back to New York City—then in turmoil from the draft riots—and buried in the family vault at St. Luke’s Church. When that land was sold in 1889, Moore’s body was re-interred in Trinity Cemetery. It is here that he is honored each December by children and adults, who read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” at the Chapel of the Intercession and march in a lantern-lit procession to lay a wreath at the poet’s grave.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” probably never struck Moore as his most important work. It is, after all, a frivolous poem, without the didacticism we find in early nineteenth-century American works for children. Young readers expected their fiction and poetry to include lessons either academic or moral; and many works were intended, as the American Annals of Education pointed out in 1828, to teach “the duties of obedience to parents, kindness to companions, respect for the rights of equals, industry, modesty, teachableness, &c.” It was the decade of “Peter Parley,” a garrulous old man created by Samuel G. Goodrich, who salted fiction with geography and morality in dozens of hugely popular books. The earliest poems exalting St. Nicholas emphasized that the gift-bringer also punished the naughty. In The Children’s Friend, in 1821, “Santeclaus” describes the delightful toys and treats he brings to “good girls or boys,/ That hated quarrels, strife and noise”—but concludes with the birch rod he leaves for
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers.
Moore’s St. Nicholas carries no birch rods in the bundle on his back. Instead, he has toys for the children and reassurance for the wakened parent. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum has demonstrated the poem’s importance in the history of American culture. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared at a time when the focus of Christmas was moving from adult revelry to domestic contentment. Home life was becoming child-centered, and Christmas was becoming the child’s holiday. Focused as it is on gift bringing and on the quiet household and on expectant children dreaming of sugar-plums, Moore’s poem reinforced this movement.
It also gave us our picture of Santa Claus. Earlier portrayals were of the solemn bishop, St. Nicholas. The merry-faced Santeclaus of 1821 still wears a variation of the bishop’s mitre and robes, though over the roof tops he drives a sleigh pulled by a single prancing reindeer. Moore’s “St. Nick” is different. It’s this word-picture that we now think of as the “real” Santa: jolly and plump and wreathed in pipe smoke, driving eight reindeer over the roofs of the sleeping town.
There are several versions of how the poem came to be written and published. The favorite story has Moore inspired by the tinkling music of horse bells to write a poem for his children, to read to them on Christmas Eve, 1822. He chose as his subject a visit from St. Nicholas, modeling the saint—so legend says—on the old Dutchman who did odd jobs at “Chelsea.” The Moore children were enchanted, and so was a relative, who copied the poem into her album. It was copied again by a friend from Troy, New York, who sent it to the editor of the Troy Sentinel. The editor knew a good poem when he read it. The poem was printed anonymously in the Sentinel on December 23, 1823, as “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”; when a copy was sent to Moore, one scholar notes, “it is said that the publication of the verses caused him chagrin and regret.” (Hosking; p. 25) Moore’s household poem was now public property.
It was popular from the start. Early nineteenth-century editors of newspapers and magazines, it’s been said, read rivals’ works with scissors in hand; and many authors discovered how popular they were by how quickly their work was appropriated by other periodicals. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was no exception. At least four newspapers reprinted the poem within three weeks of its first appearance. It was hugely popular with editors in Philadelphia: four almanacs reprinted the poem in 1824, and it was part of Saint Nicholas’s book, for all good boys and girls—also called Kriss Kringle’s Book—which Thomas, Cowperthwait, & Co. collected in 1842. In 1830, the poem was illustrated by Myron King when it was printed in New York as a “carrier’s address,” a greeting—often a broadside—from a periodical to its subscribers. In its first fifty years, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared in countless newspapers and magazines—including Parley’s Magazine and Robert Merry’s Museum, both founded by “Peter Parley’s” creator.
Henry M. Onderdonk seems to have been the first to print the poem as a separate book, in 1848. This little paper-bound chapbook was loaded with woodcuts by T. C. Boyd. Boyd’s St. Nicholas is round-bellied and energetic, a right jolly little figure whose smoking pipe seems never to leave his mouth, whether he’s encouraging his extremely tiny reindeer or preparing to pop down a chimney. Illustrations were expensive to produce, and Onderdonk made sure to get his money’s worth, reprinting the cuts in the December 1849 issue of his magazine, The Evergreen, and selling publication rights to Spalding & Shepard for their 1849 chapbook edition of the poem. After that, the book seems to have been a perennial, with a new edition every few years. It stayed a favorite for anthologies, too. In 1947, The Golden Christmas Book could subtitle their reprint, “the poem by Clement Moore which you already know,” and probably readers already did know it.
Moore may have been chagrined that the poem he intended for his private circle became public property; he may have been amazed at the various forms in which it appeared during his lifetime. Certainly he would be bewildered by the media through which the poem has been made available since: radio, television, the Internet. “Visit from St. Nicholas” was made into a silent film in 1905; in the late 1990s, it became an interactive CD which allowed users to “read along with the narrator while the more difficult words [were] explained” or to hear the poem read as they explored the computer-generated “Night Before Christmas house.” Since T. C. Boyd’s woodcuts in 1848, the poem has been illustrated by almost every major illustrator: Thomas Nast, Arthur Rackham, W. W. Denslow, Jessie Willcox Smith, Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, James Marshall, Tomie de Paola. But, in pixels or in print, the images draw from the word-pictures Moore composed: the sleeping family all snug in their beds, the bright moon shining on a tiny sleigh drawn by reindeer with musical names, the soot-tarnished elf with his little round belly. Read silently or murmured aloud, the words still enchant us, creating the cosy visions that continue to resonate as Moore’s poem becomes a part of family celebrations in a new century.
Moore as author:
Despite recent speculation, like Stephen Nissenbaum I find no reason to credit anyone but Moore with writing the poem. Nissenbaum’s reasons can be found online in “There Arose Such a Clatter.” To Nissenbaum’s argument I’d like to add that in the discussion of Moore’s poem, the scholar attacking Moore’s claim reverses his usual method of reading many works and comparing writing styles, before working up biographical and psychological details to make sure that the theory is logical. Instead, a pair of iffy psychological profiles are patched together to “prove” that Moore was too puritanical to write such a lively poem, and the argument is shaped in order to demonstrate that claim. Even if Moore were as prudish and didactic as presented in the demonstration—and few people could be—it doesn’t follow that he couldn’t have written “Visit.” By that stretch of logic, Louisa May Alcott never wrote pot boilers (see Behind the Mask), Edith Wharton didn’t experiment with pornography (I’ll let you find that for yourself), and nursery-rhyme-detesting Samuel Goodrich didn’t write “Higglety Pigglety, Pop!” For this and other reasons, I remain unconvinced.
The editor of The Troy Sentinel, publishing the poem for the first time on December 23, 1823, also refers to that “homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness—Sante Claus....” (p. 3)
Many details of Clement Moore’s life are drawn from Samuel White Patterson’s The Poet of Christmas Eve: A Life of Clement Clarke Moore (NY: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1956), a well-researched if worshipful biography; and from Arthur N. Hosking’s essay on Moore in The Night Before Christmas, a facsimile of the 1848 chapbook (NY: Dover Publications, 1971). The quote from the American Annals of Education appeared in “Books for Children” (1828). The Santeclaus poem in The Children’s Friend is reproduced with its brightly colored lithographs as part of Duncan Emrich’s “A Certain Nicholas of Patara” in the American Heritage (December 1960: pp. 22-26). The New-York Book of Poetry is available at most university libraries on microfilm, as reel number 395 of the American Culture Series; “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appears on pages 217-219. Transcriptions of Moore’s poems in the book are online. Information about early Christmas celebrations and about the effect of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is from a fascinating history by Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Readers curious about what else is in The Golden Christmas Book or about the evolution of Santa Claus should see Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday, Karal Ann Marling’s exploration of the history of Christmas in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).