The origin of America’s most popular poem

Published 7:30 am Saturday, December 11, 2021

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

I know you recognize these beginning words of what has been called the most popular poem written by an American, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “The Night before Christmas.” When you see these words or a picture illustrating that flight, you might find yourself reciting some of the lines of the poem. Long as it is, I think many people have memorized them through the years.

Numerous people have fond memories as children snuggled next to their parents or crowded together with sisters and brothers on a couch to hear those familiar words. I enjoyed reading the poem to my children; I think I got as much pleasure or more sharing it with them as they did.

Have you ever wondered about the poem’s origin? The poet was Clement Clarke Moore, a 36-year old professor at General Theological Seminary School for Episcopal Clergymen. He and his wife had several children, all younger than eight years old. He wrote the poem as a Christmas gift for them. Several guests joined his family the night he introduced it. He granted a woman permission to copy it before he put it away. The next Christmas she anonymously sent it to The Troy Sentinel in New York, where it was published with a note of appreciation from the newspaper.

Moore, an only child, earned a BA and MA from Columbia College. His father was an Episcopal minister and rector of Trinity College in New York City.  Clement Moore withheld publication of his poem for 14 years. He felt it was an undignified work of someone who studied music and history and wrote several books, sermons and classical verse. He had also helped found a theological seminary.

Moore’s poet was filled with wonderful words depicting St. Nicholas, miniature reindeer, etc. One writer speculated that a Dutchman named Jan Duyckinck and known to the family, was short, stocky, and jovial, and kept smoke flowing from his pipe, influenced Moore’s description of St. Nicholas (or later called Santa Claus.) In addition, he described the fur clothing covered with ashes and soot after Santa dropped from the chimney to the floor to deliver the presents.

Moore obviously had quite an imagination to visualize eight reindeer sailing through the air pulling Santa and bundles of presents on the sleigh and landed on a roof top. If you concentrate hard and listen closely, you might hear the tap-tap of the reindeer hoofs on the roof.

Unfortunately Moore did not live to see the popularity of his poem soar and the delight of the public with it.

Christmas is not many days away, so I share St. Nicholas’s greeting as he drove out of sight: “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”