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Little Santa Claus

February 2024
2min read

On December 23 the Troy, New York, Sentinel published an unsigned poem under the heading “Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas.” A prefatory editor’s note confessed, “We know not to whom we are indebted for the following. …” The poem, better known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” was an instant hit, and the Sentinel , along with other newspapers, began reprinting it every Christmas. In January 1829, responding to a query about who wrote the poem, the Sentinel described its author as “a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and a writer than many more of more noisy pretensions.” For those who were stumped by the Sentinel ’s word games, an 1837 anthology finally identified the poet, an affluent New York City landowner and classical scholar named Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore made an unlikely composer of doggerel. His previously published works included America’s first Hebrew lexicon, a refutation of Thomas Jefferson’s religious views, an inquiry into America’s foreign shipping trade, and a translation from the French of Alexandre Henri Tessier’s A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep . Moore wrote most of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” while shopping for a turkey on Christmas Eve 1822. He committed it to paper when he got home and then recited it to his family. A houseguest, Harriet Butler, of Troy, asked permission to copy the poem, and the next Christmas it appeared in her hometown paper.

Moore’s poem added several important features to the traditional St. Nicholas legend, a centuries-old accretion of religious stories and pagan myths. In 1809 Washington Irving had introduced the idea of a benevolent gift-bearing St. Nicholas flying through the air in a wagon. An 1821 children’s book published by a friend of Moore had pictured “Santeclaus” in a flying sleigh pulled by a single reindeer. Moore increased the number of deer to eight (which is much more plausible) and gave them names. He also introduced Santa’s familiar ruddy cheeks, red nose, white beard, and large belly, modeling his features after those of an old Dutchman who lived nearby.

In Moore’s version the reindeer flew only when they needed to get up to the roof; otherwise they pulled the sleigh along the ground. Bright children may have wondered why St. Nicholas didn’t just use the door, though the brightest ones surely realized that grown-ups do many things that don’t make sense. In any case Santa’s unnecessarily dramatic mode of entry required him to be the size of an elf, which accounts for the poem’s “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer.” Indeed, most nineteenth-century illustrators drew a doll-size Santa Claus until the jumbo, roly-poly Thomas Nast version began to take shape in the 1860s. How such a runt could carry gifts much larger than a Cracker Jack prize was never explained, but here again, sharp children were wise enough not to question the source of their wealth.

Over the years Moore’s sturdy epic has been parodied with slang, dialect, and foreign-language variants; nights after Christmas; nights before Hanukkah and Kwanzaa; political and topical satires; musical adaptations; and innumerable versions of the poem as this or that famous person would have written it. In the last category is a memorable prose version written by James Thurber in the style of Ernest Hemingway (“‘Who is it?’ mamma asked. ‘Some guy,’ I said. ‘A little guy.’”). The secret of its continued popularity, perhaps, is that most people encounter it for the first time when they are too young to be jaded. Though Moore did not object to the unexpected fame that his spur-of-the-moment composition brought, it is ironic that a man of his scholarly accomplishments is remembered for something so whimsical—and that the deeply religious Moore, who endowed a theological seminary and a number of churches, created one of the most inescapable elements of our modern secular Christmas.

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