A Visit From St. Nicholas

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 12:19pm -- lwhite

Most of today’s popular Christmas traditions did not exist in America prior to the 19th century. Christmas trees, carols, even gift giving were all practices that came into fashion in this period. Santa Claus, the classic symbol of Christmas-time for children, went through a series of early evolutions to become the figure he is today. Based in part on the historical St. Nicholas (a Greek Saint), the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas (who was based on St. Nicholas as well), and several other traditions, it was a while before Santa Claus’ lore was fully realized, especially in American culture. The creation of the Santa Claus we know today is often credited to a poem published anonymously in 1823, originally titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” now called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” Photo Credit: New York Historical Society

Although the poem was published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823, most people attribute the work to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). It was first attributed to him in print in 1837 and he first claimed ownership of it himself when he included it in a book of his poems in 1844. Moore was a writer and professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, and Divinity and Biblical Learning, in New York. He was a wealthy man who gained his wealth by subdividing and developing his inherited estate in what became known as the neighborhood of Chelsea. Moore owned slaves and was opposed to the abolition of the institution, which happened in New York during his lifetime, with a gradual abolition law that had freed the last slaves in New York by 1827. Moore died at his summer home on Catherine Street in Newport, RI and his funeral was held at Trinity Church in Newport, where he had owned a pew, before his body was returned to New York to be buried.

Clement Clake Moore

Interestingly, there has been modern debate by scholars to determine if Moore was truly the author of this poem. An American professor, Donald Foster believes that Major Henry Livingston, Jr. should be considered the author, a view long supported by Livingston’s family. Livingston’s children said they could remember hearing the poem from him long before it was published in the Sentinel. Foster’s theory was forcefully challenged by document dealer and historian Seth Kaller, who once owned one of Moore’s original manuscripts of the poem. The debate continues even to this year, with the publication of an entire book on the subject by a professor in New Zealand, MacDonald P. Jackson, who specializes in author identification. Entitled Who Wrote "the Night Before Christmas"?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question (2016), Jackson’s conclusion in the book is that Livingston is the true author of the poem.

Henry Livingston, Jr.

Whoever wrote the poem, it is clear that the tradition of Santa Claus that they created had a lasting effect on American culture. St. Nick, as he is called in the poem, is described as a “jolly old elf” with rosy cheeks and a round belly that shakes when he laughs. His reindeer and sleigh await him on the roof as he brings presents for the sleeping children and then he rides off into the night, calling out their names, as we still remember them today. Rudolph is the notable exception as he was a later addition to the team. This St. Nick story became widely popular across the country and has persisted through whatever evolution of the holiday has followed, giving either Moore or Livingston a lasting success.