Tonight, if you are like me, you will be reading to your children or grandchildren, or perhaps to yourself. My own readings will consist of the Bible story of Mary and Joseph, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, poetry by Robert Frost and, of course, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore.
I read it to my children and tonight will read it to Aaron’s boys in front of their Christmas tree. I read it at Cahoots on Wednesday evening while waiting for the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus. Whenever I recite or read the poem, several folks tell me it was the first poem they learned as a child. Me too! I can recite it until I get to the “as dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly …” Somehow I always mess up those lines.
My dad, in his fun literary way, revised the poem one year for all of us. We laughed and scoffed as children do. “Twas the night after Christmas and all through the house, on the back of a chair hung a worn dirty blouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, they had been worn for weeks and needed the air.” And so it went.
So Clement C. Moore must have been a jolly man, but in fact, he was not! He actually was a bit of a stodgy academic. He was known as Dr. Moore since he was a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City according to Duncan Emrich in his book, Folklore on the American Land. Professor Moore had hoped his contribution to the world would be his two-volume legacy entitled, “A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.” I daresay, I won’t be reading that tonight, and neither will you!
So, how and where did this poem come to be? With a little sleuthing I have found some fascinating information to share with you.
Most of my information has come from Duncan Emrich. On Christmas Eve of 1822, Moore was taking a sleigh ride home from Greenwich Village (Excuse me for interrupting, but that alone sounds fascinating!) with his six children. The driver of the sleigh was a chubby Dutchman. It is also noted that he may have taken some ideas from Irving Knickerbocker’s poem, “The Children’s Friend,” published in 1821 which referred to Sinter Klass in Dutch. However, this Santa was dark and not near as friendly as our Santa. Remembering the line, “A stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.”
The professor was a learned man, yet with those six children of his, he wanted a bit of magic for them so Santa Claus was born. Moore introduced us to stockings hanging by the fireplace, Santa Claus visiting on Christmas Eve, and the eight reindeer of which Moore named himself.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” has remained in public domain. Therefore, it has been used hundreds of thousands of times. It has been translated into every major language, made into songs, plays, movies, and made popular by most popular singers. It has been read by historians, literary professors, actors, and well, mostly moms and dads on Christmas.
In recent years there has been some controversy over the true authorship of the poem. If you are interested in that discussion please go to the New York Times’s article, “Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on Authorship of Iconic Christmas Poem.” By the way, I am adding that just for any scholarly reference or in case you want to discuss this on the street corners in town!
As for me, my old worn copy from my dad sits on my shelf. I can hear his voice loud and full of animation as he read to the six of us on the night before Christmas. I will read from that same book to my grandsons tonight.
It is said that at the General Theological Seminary in New York City a holy wreath is placed on Dr. Moore’s photograph on Christmas Eve. It is not because he was the author of the two-volume Hebrew Dictionary or even that he was a scholarly man. It is because he is the known author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and that, my friend, was a lovely gift to our world.
“And he replied as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”