An American poet and educator, Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863) is named as the author of the well-known Christmas-themed poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a work that is better known by its first line: “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” His role as author has been contested over the years; Moore was a respected professor of Oriental and Greek languages when he was credited with its authorship, 20 years after its anonymous publication in 1823.
Raised by an Episcopal priest, Clement Clark Moore became a scholar of ancient languages, authoring a Hebrew and English lexicon and aiding in the foundation of New York City's Graduate Theological Seminary. Moore also became the center of a literary mystery when he was publicly credited as the author of the famous holiday poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1844, over two decades after its anonymous publication.
An only child, Moore was born July 17, 1779, to the Reverend Benjamin Moore and wife Charity Clarke Moore. He grew up on his mother's family estate, Chelsea, in the countryside west of New York City. Moore's father, a priest at Trinity Church, would eventually become bishop of New York in the newly formed Episcopal Church of the United States of America and was noted for ministering the last rites to Alexander Hamilton following Hamilton's famous duel with Aaron Burr. His mother was the daughter and heir of Colonel Thomas Clarke, an English officer who arrived in the region to fight in the French and Indian War and decided to stay. Clarke created the Chelsea estate, which he named after a veterans’ hospital in London. Although Moore's Clarke family forbears included British sympathizers, during the Revolutionary War, both British and colonial forces were quartered on the grounds of the Clarke estate, depending on which army had control of New York City at the time. In addition, General George Washington visited there to apologize to Moore's grandmother about his soldiers’ rough behavior.
Moore was educated at home by his father until he entered nearby Columbia College, where he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees. His father had a small building containing study erected on a hill at Chelsea, where both he and his son could pursue their studies and writing in peace. After finishing his master's degree, the younger Moore continued his scholarly pursuits in a fashion typical of a well–off intellectual person of the time. He translated ancient manuscripts, edited his father's sermons, and wrote articles on religion, politics, and other subjects. Before the 1804 presidential election, Moore published a pamphlet criticizing Thomas Jefferson's popular Notes on the State of Virginia for what he viewed as anti-religious sentiments. His greatest effort, over nearly a decade, was expended on writing Hebrew and English Lexicon, a learning guide containing vocabulary and translations. While this 1809 work was viewed somewhat critically by scholars as unoriginal and mainly of use to beginners, it enhanced his resumé as a prospective professor in later years.
Like his father, Moore was a devoted member of the Episcopal Church and was actively involved in his parish, volunteering at the diocesan school in New York City. When the growing church voiced the need for a seminary to train new clergy, he generously donated the apple orchard on his estate to the endeavor. Construction on the Graduate Theological Seminary took several years and was completed in 1827, and Moore was appointed professor of Oriental and Greek languages, although he taught other subjects as well. He served on the seminary's faculty for almost 25 years.
In the early 1800s New York City was rapidly growing, and it was planned that the city streets would be laid out in a grid extending out as far as required into the surrounding countryside. Although the major cross streets were cleared, the project to plat the expansion of the city then languished. Moore was very upset about the messy, stumpfilled right of way through his apple orchards, railing against taxes levied by city bureaucrats for their ill-considered plans. After some time, he drew up plans of his own, subdividing the land on either side of the future 9th Avenue. He sold the lots to wealthy city residents, creating what would be called the Chelsea neighborhood. During the early 1830s Moore donated an adjacent portion of land between Eighth and Ninth avenues as a site for the construction of St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
Moore enjoyed writing poetry and he penned verses for pleasure, and for publication, throughout his life. His friends, family, and acquaintances were often the recipients of his poems, and in 1844 he published an anthology of his best works. Included in this anthology was the already famous “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which had been included at the urging of his now-grown children. Before including the poem, Moore wrote to the editor of the Troy Sentinel newspaper, where “A Visit from St. Nicholas” had run, anonymously, in 1823. He inquired as to whether anyone had claimed authorship of the poem and learned that there had been no such claim. According to the editor, those on the newspaper's staff who would have had any knowledge of the poems authorship were all deceased. The fact that Moore made this inquiry eventually cast doubt on his role as the poem's author. Researching the matter, linguistic scholars have postulated that he might have been double-checking before claiming authorship of a poem he did not write.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” is considered a cultural landmark. Before it was published, St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus, was thought of as a tall, skinny saint who would reward good children and punish bad children at Christmastime. The poem, on the other hand, painted St. Nicholas as a short, jolly elf who arrived in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer and left gifts for all children. The image stuck in the popular imagination, gradually morphing into the modern Santa Claus.
During the two decades after its first publication, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was generally printed in newspapers as Christmas approached, always credited to Anonymous. Some thought that Moore—a prolific poet and the father of nine children—was likely the author. Moore kept quiet on the subject, until at his family's insistence, he included the poem in his anthology. When asked to explain the delay in acknowledging authorship, the professor said that he considered the poem a trifle and unscholarly. He had written it on Christmas Eve, 1822, to entertain his children. He had based the St. Nicholas character on a local, pot-bellied Dutchman who did odd jobs on the Chelsea estate. Accounts from the time claim that a young lady visiting the Moore household had heard the poem's first recitation, transcribed it, and took it home to Troy, New York, where she passed it on to the Sentinel newspaper.
After definitively calling the poem his own by publishing it, Moore made several handwritten and signed copies, which he presented to friends and organizations such as the New York Historical Society. The poem was more widely distributed with Moore as its author, and a protest was raised by members of the Livingston family, fellow New Yorkers. Some of the Livingstons remembered hearing the poem recited in their childhood, perhaps as early as 1808. Their late relative Henry Livingston had written it, they claimed. Livingston was a jolly fellow of Dutch and Scottish extraction who was given to writing playful verses in that particular meter. Nobody had a personal copy, but several remembered seeing the earliest version, marked with of corrections and rephrasings. Reportedly, Livingston gave this version to a daughter living in another state, and her home had since burned down.
Reception was mixed regarding the Livingston claim. Without physical evidence, it was their word against that of Moore and his family; for everyone else it was a matter of opinion. Moore continued to be credited as the author, and a new edition, featuring illustrations by his daughter, Mary C. Ogden, was released in 1855.
In 2000, linguistic scholar Donald Foster reported that textual content analyis—a side-by-side comparison of the poem with Moore's other works—as well as a study of Livingston's works revealed patterns of word usage, ideas, and apparent influences that reflect Livingston's language, style, and Dutch heritage. In 2016, another expert in author attribution, the University of Auckland's Emeritus Professor MacDonald P. Jackson, used a statistical technique called computational stylistics to compare the poem's linguistic patterns with other poems by Moore and Livingston, down to the very fine-grained comparison of phonemes, or the smallest units of speech to do with meaning. Jackson concurred that the poem was most likely Livingston's work.
These and other claims have been argued, point by point, by numerous supporters of Moore's authorship. Despite lingering doubts, Moore has retained his claim to fame as the author credited for writing “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” It was among the accomplishments noted by obituary writers upon Moore's death on July 10, 1863, at his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. He was a few months shy of turning 84.
Foster, Donald, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, Henry Holt, 2001.
Patterson, Samuel White, The Poet of Christmas Eve: A Life of Clement Clarke Moore, 1779–1863, Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1956.
Common–Place website, http://common-place.org/ (January 1, 2001), Stephen Nissenbaum, “There Arose Such a Clatter: Who Really Wrote “The Night before Christmas” ? (And Why Does It Matter?”
Mental Floss website, http://mentalfloss.com/ (December 8, 2016), Stacy Conradt, “The Mystery behind the World's Most Famous Christmas Poem.”
New York Times online, http://www.nytimes.com/ (October 26, 2000), David D. Kirkpatrick, “Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem.”❑