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Monday, December 16, 2019

'Twas the Night

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Clement Clarke Moore was born in 1779, in New York City.  His grandfather had bought a farm in a far-distant suburb of the bustling city.  Variously referred to as a farm or an estate, Chelsea (named after Chelsea in London, of course), was developed by Moore as a suburb of the rapidly growing city in the early decades of the 1800s.  He donated land for both the General Theological Seminary, where he served as Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature as well as Biblical Learning, and for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.  Both still flourish today.  Chelsea has long been a part of urban Manhattan, rural or suburban no longer.

Moore's Chelsea mansion, drawn by his daughter, Mary C. Ogden

In 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in the Troy, N.Y. Sentinel.  It was not until 1837 that the poem was attributed to Moore – apparently he had written it to amuse his daughters, and had not originally wanted to lay claim to it, lest it detract from his reputation as a serious scholar.  However, its immediate and enduring popularity eventually convinced him to admit to his authorship.  (Although, to complicate matters, some critics now believe the poem was actually written by a New York author named Henry Livingston.)  Moore died in 1863.

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

The importance of the poem lies in its establishment of a uniquely American Santa Claus myth.  Drawing on the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the historical St. Nicholas of Myra, Santa Claus already existed.  But it was “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which defined him as chubby, jolly, and benevolent, and it was the poem which named the eight reindeer who drew his sleigh.

Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!

Whatever the truth of its origins, it’s very likely that most of the characters in the Prairie Rose Western novels would have heard of – in fact, grown up with – this poem.   And every year, Chelsea Community Church, a non-denominational church which meets at Moore’s own St. Peter’s, throws a wonderful party:  a festival of lessons and carols that fills every seat of the grand old 1838 edifice.  A choir sings, the audience carols, and best of all, a local actor or performer reads “A Visit From St. Nicholas” – performers like Rosanne Cash, Ethan Hawke, and Blair Brown, as well as stage actors.  This year it was Michael James Leslie, who originated the voice of the monstrous Plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors – who ended with a laugh so ringing and delightful that it echoes in my ears the next day.

So to all of you, “Merry Christmas to all!  And to all a good night!”   (As well as a wonderful Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, and New Year’s!)

 . . . . and if you're looking for a holiday gift and would like to support a new writer, why not give Courting Anna a try?


  1. Catherine, Hilda R from the church took one year to settle the "who wrote this" score. A journalist and no nonsense human, Hilda settled it in CCM's favor. Love the history.

    1. Has she published this somewhere? The Academy of American Poets (I think, one of the sites I checked) still considers the authorship in doubt. I would LOVE to see what Hilda has to say!

  2. It is a uniquely American tradition, and one us foreigners gained through movies and T.V. shows. It is a wonderfully festive piece and captures the excitement of the build up to Christmas beautifully. A lovely festive post.

    1. I was working on a post about a delightfully corrupt law firm in the latter half of the 19th century, but I ran out of time, and anyway it wasn't very much in the holiday spirit, so that's for January. Moore's work, coming in the 1820s, is at a time when figuring out what is an "American" tradition is still so new; I love the poem but it was also in the right place at the right time, I think.

  3. What a delightful time to celebrate. I would love to be a fly on the wall for the event. Thank you for sharing. Doris

    1. It's delightful. I sing in it some years, but this year I cheered from the audience. Mary Sheeran, whose Prairie Rose debut comes out later this winter, sings every year!

  4. This is the first time I have heard anything about the author of this famous holiday poem. I am delighted to learn about the Chelsea Church having any annual Christmas celebration to honor this poem and the author (Moore or Livingston?).
    A lovely post for the holiday season, Cate.

    1. We vote for Moore, since he's the one we have a historic connection with. My friend Mary, above, tells me someone who's researched it in depth has come down firmly on Moore's side, so yay!

  5. Delightfully informative post. Thank you. This is a poem that I memorized as a child and can still recite to this day. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.