By Laurie Lewis
On December 23, 1823, a newspaper in Troy, New York (about 160 miles north of New York City), published an anonymous poem that began “’Twas the night before Christmas.” Readers loved the poem, and soon it was reprinted in other newspapers, schoolbooks, anthologies, and standalone booklets. Many families began a Christmas tradition, gathering around the fireplace on the evening of December 24 to hear the poem in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the jolly old elf.
One of the anthologies that printed the poem was The New-York Book of Poetry, published in 1837. The author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the official name of the poem, appeared as “anonymous.” Several other poems in the anthology were by a New York City resident named Clement Clarke Moore. In 1844, Moore claimed to be the author of the beloved Christmas verse.
Moore, whose mother came from an old, well-to-do New York family, had followed in his father’s footsteps to become a scholar and religious leader. Most of his writings were academic and esoteric—hardly the style of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But he said he wrote the poem in 1822 to entertain his children. A family friend from Troy was visiting when he recited it to them, and she submitted the poem to the local paper the following year.
Moore was a busy man during this time. He was the senior warden (a lay leader) of a new Trinity parish church, St. Luke in the Fields, one of the earliest institutions in what was then a rural area called Greenwich Village. He had donated a large part of the Chelsea estate he inherited from his mother for construction of an Episcopal seminary, and he taught ancient Greek and Hebrew literature there for almost 30 years. He essentially planned the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, gradually selling off parcels of the family estate on condition that the land be used only for residential, not commercial, purposes. Both St. Luke and the General Theological Seminary are still going strong.
Many years later, descendants of Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a Poughkeepsie, New York, farmer and poet, claimed that he, not Moore, was the author. Although the Livingston family presented no proof, subsequent analyses of wording of the verse appeared to substantiate that claim.
The city of Troy, where the poem was first published, set out to resolve the mystery by holding a mock trial in 2013. The one-evening event—more a lighthearted theatrical entertainment than an actual courtroom drama—ended in a hung jury.
Don’t tell that to the children of the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street in Manhattan. Since 1911, they have been gathering at the church on or near Christmas Eve to hear “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Then they march downhill a block or so toward the Hudson River, stopping at Clement Clarke Moore’s gravesite in the uptown Trinity Cemetery to pay homage to the writer. This year’s event is on December 16 at 3 PM.
So forget what mock trials or linguistic experts may conclude. Popular opinion holds that what is probably the most cherished Christmas poem in history is the work of a nineteenth-century New York City man named Clement Clarke Moore.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
'Twas 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 my 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 a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he 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, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop 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 pedler 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 on 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 bowl full 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!”
Are you looking for the perfect gift for somebody who enjoys walking tours? Consider a private or custom tour from Take a Walk New York. For possible itineraries, see our website, www.takeawalknewyork.com, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding and rowhouse mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings—mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them—New York's own rich and famous.
Take a walk with Laurie to see mansions of Fifth Avenue on Monday, December 10, at 1:30 PM. Please email the guide (email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city's most surprising landscapes. Enjoy a hike in the woods beside a stream, explore heights that played a strategic role in early American wars, and discover New York's own Secret Garden.
Alan gives this tour on Wednesday, December 12, at 11 AM. Email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a space and to learn the meeting location.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan reveals American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William "Boss" Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Join Alan on Saturday, December 15, at 10 AM to take a walk through history. Please email him (email@example.com) to reserve a place and to learn the meeting location.
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you’ll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers—including Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Edward Albee—lived. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Wednesday, December 26, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.