Clement C. Moore of New York City did a lot of things during his lifetime.
He taught Asian and Greek studies at the college that became Columbia University and wrote a well-received Hebrew dictionary in two volumes. He fought against urban sprawl—especially as it approached his family estate on Manhattan Island and raised his taxes*—and donated land for the building of a theological seminary, for which he later taught. He organized a couple of churches and sat on the board for the New York Institution for the Blind. He raised a family in a huge house with several chimneys—this is important later, I promise—and made up stories for his children.
And in 1844, he published a book of poetry.
In this collection, as is often the case, was work that had previously been published.
One of these poems had appeared in The Troy Sentinel newspaper on December 23, 1823, anonymously, and had become instantly popular. It had been reprinted and recited and translated into several languages. Traditions of reading it aloud had been established in families all over the world.
But it wasn’t until Dr. Moore decided to collect all of his verses into one place that readers could put a name to the famous, unmistakable poem.
A poem that defined a myth and solidified a legend.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
(Clement C. Moore, 1823)
‘Twas was 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 mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day 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 coursers 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, Donder 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 coursers 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 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;
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.”
Some believe that this is actually the work of Henry Livingston, Jr., a poet of the same time who often submitted his work anonymously to newspapers. Mr. Livingston’s children claimed that their father, who was a distant cousin of Dr. Moore’s wife, wrote the poem for them fifteen years before it appeared in The Troy Sentinel, but they had no documented proof.
Scholars have compared the works of both men and some have decided that Mr. Livingston’s style matches the poem more closely. However, everyone agrees that the copy that was published in 1923 was sent to the newspaper from Dr. Moore’s house, though he wasn’t the one who submitted it. We’ll probably never know for sure.**
But the children of the world probably don’t care as long as those sugarplums keep dancing along with those tiny hooves.
*Yes, Virginia, beloved poets can be grouchy, rich people, too.
** I know I should be concerned about giving credit where credit is actually due . . . but I’m too busy trying to memorize the names of the reindeer.
(Poem images by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1912)