‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”
It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.
First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.
Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.
As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.
But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.
The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.
He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”
Legend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.
“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.
That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)
A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.
“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.
“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.
The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.
Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.
A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.
If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.
[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]