By Jeff Westover
Clement Clarke Moore was one of New York’s wealthiest men. And clearly, one of it’s most highly educated.
He was born in 1779 to Benjamin Moore, a patriot and and Episcopalian minister. His mother was Charity Clarke, a fiesty and ardent supporter of the American cause. He inherited from her side of the family a good portion of land that would someday become the Chelsea District in New York City.
For young Clement C. Moore, his life’s work did not lay in the ministry as it did his father. He had a well developed love of language and pursued the learning of ancient dialects of Hebrew, Greek and German. But he was a man of profound attachment to family, home and church. He donated property and for a time assumed the entire debt of Saint Peter’s Church.
He married a woman named Catherine Elizabeth and was shamelessly devoted to her. While courting her, Moore wrote to his future mother-in-law that he would carve her name into trees. Together, they had nine children. When her life unexpectedly was taken while she was yet 30 years old, he was devastated. But he assumed her duties and enjoyed fond relationships with his children and grandchildren.
It is not hard to imagine then what transpired that snowy Christmas Eve in 1822. Catherine sent her husband out into the elements to get one more turkey, which she and the children were preparing as a donation to the poor. Their home, with six children at the time, was one filled with love and warmth and tradition.
Clement ventured into town, his coachman being a jolly, round fellow with a long white beard and a most cheerful disposition. After he purchased the needed turkey from Jefferson’s Market, with sleigh bells merrily ringing in his ears as the snow fell that Christmas Eve day, he composed a short poem.
Moore returned home with the turkey and the family traditions of Christmas took hold. He added to them by delighting his young children that night by the fire with the first reading of “The Night Before Christmas”, the poem he had composed that very afternoon. Then, he tucked his handwritten copy of his creation away and gave it no further thought.
But his poem had made a powerful impression upon his children, who some months later shared it with a visiting family friend. This same friend, not knowing that Moore’s sole intent was to keep the poem private, sent it to the Troy Sentinel, where it was published anonymously just before Christmas in 1823.
The poem quickly became beloved of the public and spread Moore’s name around the globe. It shaped the imagination of who Santa Claus is and what he looks like. Moore’s work provided inspiration for Thomas Nast, an illustrator of political cartoons who gained notoriety as well for his early wood engravings of Christmas scenes published in Harper’s Weekly.
By 1844, Moore included A Visit from Saint Nicholas in a published collection of his poetic writings. He was a giant in his community, a trustee of Columbia University, well known in academia for his scholarship in ancient languages and his real estate dealings shaped modern-day Manhatten. But the world knows him and holds him dear for the “trifle”, as he called it, that he penned for his children on a chilly sleigh ride back home from the market on Christmas Eve of 1822.
Here is the text of A Visit from Saint Nicholas, or, as most know it, Twas the Night Before Christmas:
‘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 Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
gave the lustre of midday 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 courses 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 courses 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 head 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 on 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 bowl full 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!