“A mere trifle.”
That’s how Clement Clarke Moore referred to the little poem he wrote for his children on Christmas Eve, 1822. Initially titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” it has become known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” or sometimes “The Night Before Christmas”.
Clement Clarke Moore was a brilliant scholar who, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from what is now Columbia University, he taught Oriental and Greek Literature, Divinity and Biblical Learning at Episcopal General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, NY.
Because of his academic stature at the seminary, he was resistant to let the poem be published at all. But at the insistence of his children, he allowed them and a friend to submit it the following year to The Sentinel, a York, New York-based newspaper thinking that no one would see it. He was adamant that it be published anonymously. The poem appeared in print on December 23, 1823.
Mr. Moore’s poem went “viral” in the mid-1800’s and with it he created several of our Santa-based traditions. For instance, the Old Man’s apparel and appearance come from Moore’s ride to the market earlier on Christmas Eve to buy the Christmas turkey. Supposedly the driver of the sleigh was jolly, red-cheeked with a white beard and furry overcoat. Hence we have Santa’s appearance:
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 legendary addition of elves and the existence of a Santa’s workshop may have come from this line in the poem:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
The entryway for Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) into people’s living rooms was addressed as well. How does the Old Man get into our homes?
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 exits the same way.
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!
Alas, Clement Clarke Moore never wanted the kind of notoriety that he has received from this whimsical verse. He wanted only to be known for his teaching and his other writings like the ever-popular books he wrote:
Hebrew and English Lexicon
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
George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania.
We will all leave a legacy of some kind and how many of them will be deliberate? How many may be accidental (like this poem)? We will probably never know. So I think it behooves us to be careful – to regard every deed, every word (spoken or written) as something that is kind and good -maybe even inspirational and quotable.
You never know who’s listening…or reading.