Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known today as The Night Before Christmas, was first published today in 1823. Now WE know em

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Clement Clarke Moore was born July 15, 1779 in the Clarke family estate named “Chelsea” in Manhattan, New York City.

His father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was an Episcopal priest at Trinity Church in New York City.

His mother, Charity Clarke, was the 32 year old daughter of Major Thomas Clarke, a British veteran of the French and Indian War who had died in 1776.

Clement then grew up at the Moore family residence in Elmhurst, Queens.

He graduated from Columbia College in 1798 where he earned both his B.A. and his M.A.

Clement began writing, with one of his earliest known works being a pro-Federalist pamphlet titled “Observations upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion, and Establish a False Philosophy.” This polemic was published during the 1804 Presidential Election campaign in which Clement Moore focused on Jefferson’s 1785 published “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

With this writing, Clement Moore attacked the religious views of incumbent President Thomas Jefferson and concluded that President Jefferson was an “instrument of infidelity.”

Clement Moore’s career was as an academic, publishing his “Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language” in 1809.

Commissioner’s Plan of 1811

Clement Moore inherited his maternal grandfather’s open countryside estate “Chelsea” which was located on the west side of Manhattan island above Houston Street where the developed part of New York City ended at the time.

His grandfather had named the house where he was born for a hospital in London that served war veterans.

Then when New York City laid down the street grid called for in the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, the new Ninth Avenue went through the middle of his “Chelsea” estate, causing Clement Moore to write and publish a pamphlet which called on other “Proprietors of Real Estate” to fight the continued development of the city, which he saw as a conspiracy designed to increase political patronage and appease the city’s working class.

He also decried having to pay taxes for public works such as creating new streets, which he called “a tyranny no monarch in Europe would dare to exercise.”

Despite Clement objections, the new Ninth Avenue was cut directly through the middle of his estate.

So Clement Moore began to develop Chelsea, dividing it up into lots along Ninth Avenue and selling them to well-heeled New Yorkers. Covenants in the deeds of sale specified what could be built on the land – stables, manufacturing and commercial uses were forbidden – as well as architectural details of the buildings.

Clement married Catharine Elizabeth Taylor, of English and Dutch descent and a direct descendant of the Van Cortlandt family, once the major landholders in the lower Hudson Valley of New York.

In 1820, Clement Moore helped Trinity Church organize a new parish church, St. Lukes in the Fields, on Hudson Street.

He also donated to the Episcopal diocese an apple orchard consisting of 66 tracts for use as a seminary, construction on which began later in 1827.

Then in 1822, while on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his two daughters, Margaret and Charity.

“A Visit from St. Nicholas”

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was then published anonymously on December 23, 1823 in the Troy, New York Sentinel after having been sent there by a friend of Clement Moore.

(Read the full poem at the end of this article)

Prior to this poem, American ideas about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably. It soon became a popular poem which was set to music and was recorded by many artists.

Clement’s inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas.

Moore’s conception of St. Nicholas portrayed the “jolly old elf” as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.

At the time Clement Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants — who saw Christmas as the result of “Catholic ignorance and deception” — still had reservations.

By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Clement “deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations.”

As a result, “New Yorkers embraced Clement Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”

The poem was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached.

In 1827, on the land he donated from his apple orchard the General Theological Seminary was built and dedicated, and where Clement Moore served as the first professor of Oriental Languages, and which still survives on the same site, taking up most of the block between 20th and 21st Streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

Ten years later, the same ye r that Clement Moore was first attributed in print as the author of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” he also gave land on Ninth and 20th Street, east of the avenue, for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

From 1840 to 1850, Clement was a board member of the New York Institution for the Blind at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, which is now the New York Institute for Special Education.

Clement Moore himself, finally acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship.

By then Clement Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece.

In 1855, one of Clement’s daughters, Mary C. Moore Ogden, painted “illuminations” to go with her father’s celebrated verse.

A rendering of the Mansion House of the Chelsea estate by Clement Moore's daughter, Mary C. Ogden made for the first color edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas (1855)

A rendering of the Mansion House of the Chelsea estate by Clement Moore’s daughter, Mary C. Ogden made for the first color edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas (1855)

Clement Moore died July 10, 1863 at his summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island at the age of 83.

His funeral was held in Trinity Church, Newport, where he had owned a pew.

Then his body was interred in the cemetery at St. Luke in the Fields.

On November 29, 1899, his body was reinterred in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York.

Today Clement his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, is also known as “The Night Before Christmas” and “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” from its first line.

The poem, has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American”, and is largely responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century right up until today.

Four hand-written original copies of the poem are known to exist, and three are in museums. The fourth copy, written out and signed by Clement Clarke Moore as a gift to a friend in 1860, was sold by one private collector to another in December 2006.

'Twas the night before Christmas (credit: New-York Historical Society)

‘Twas the night before Christmas (credit: New-York Historical Society)

 

Now WE know em

 

A Visit from St. Nicholas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ 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 danc’d 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 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 luster 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 call’d 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 dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

And he look’d 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 laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laugh’d 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 fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprung 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.

—Clement Clarke Moore

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