A Christmas Classic: Clement Clarke Moore
One of the most famous, enduring pieces of holiday literature is the story-poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Originally titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” the poem was first published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel. In 1844, Moore included it in Poems, a collection of his works.
I could almost swear on a stack of money that I once saw a dramatic rendering— well, okay, a cartoon– of the story’s creation that depicted the author writing the poem for his very ill daughter, who was shivering in her sickbed. He wanted to write her a special poem by Christmas morning, worried she might die in the night. I think her name was Sara or Clara. However, I can find no evidence of this TV special. Maybe I dreamed it. It’s true that Clement wrote the poem to please his children, but there’s no evidence that any of them were ill at the time, nor were any of his daughters named Sara or Clara. He first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822. It was published the following year, its popularity spreading as fast as a thing could spread, back in the days before the internet existed. Years later, skeptical scholars debated whether Moore wrote it at all, citing linguistic aberrations and handwriting analysis, but those rumors have pretty much been put to rest.
Because of the fancy phrasing and certain wording (“a right jolly old elf”) in the poem, I always assumed Moore was British. Actually, he was born in in 1779 New York City. His father, Benjamin Moore, was a bishop who was present during George Washington’s inauguration! Young Clement was home-schooled before it was a “thing,” eventually attending Columbia College. While “Twas the Night Before Christmas” is his best-known work, Moore was also the author of scholarly tomes such as Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, and a biography entitled George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania. Clement Clarke Moore passed away in 1863.
(As long as we’re on the topic of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday cartoons of all time was a 1974 musical animated rendering of Moore’s classic tale, complete with an awesome musical score. Set in the late 1800s in a fictional town called Junctionville, the cute, half-hour movie tells the story of a poor clock-maker named Joshua Trundle and his family, and a family of mice that share his home. When all the letters Junctionville’s children wrote to Santa come back marked “Return to Sender,” Trundle and Father Mouse must find out why he’s mad, and somehow win his forgiveness! The special features the celebrity voices of George Gobel, Tammy Grimes, and Joel Grey. You can check it out on YouTube. You won’t be sorry!)
Meanwhile, here is Clement Clarke Moore’s holiday classic, in its entirety, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Enjoy!
A Visit from St. Nicholas
By Clement Clarke Moore