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Clement Clarke Moore: The Reluctant Mythmaker

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Clement Clarke Moore: The Reluctant Mythmaker

Clement Clarke Moore

Lawrence Thornton / Getty Images

Note: After this article was published, new research by Professor Don Foster of Vassar College cast doubt on Clement Clarke Moore's authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas."  For a discussion of the controversy, see "Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on Authorship of Iconic Christmas Poem" (New York Times).

TRUTH BE TOLD, the 19th-century author who bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded St. Nicholas ("His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!") was himself a dour, straitlaced academician. As a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C. Moore's most notable work prior to "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was a two-volume tome entitled A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.

Fortunately for us, the man had children.

Legend has it Moore composed "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for his family on Christmas Eve of 1822, during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village. He supposedly drew inspiration for the elfin, pot-bellied St. Nick in his poem from the roly-poly Dutchman who drove his sleigh that day. But from what we know of Clement Moore, it's much more likely that he found his imagery in literary sources, most notably Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History (1809) and a Christmas poem published in 1821 called "The Children's Friend."

'Knickerbocker History'

Irving's History, a satire on the transplanted customs of New York's Dutch population, contained several references to the legendary St. Nicholas ("Sinter Klass" in Dutch), a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes. Apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve, we would scarcely recognize the character as the Santa Claus we know today.

"The Children's Friend," a poem for young people, harkened from the same tradition but also added new elements to the "Santeclaus" myth: the first known references to a sleigh and reindeer. The poem begins:

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you...

Fat and jolly Dutch burghers

According to Duncan Emrich in Folklore on the American Land (Little, Brown, 1972), when Moore sat down to compose a Christmas poem for his own children, he took inspiration from what he had read in these works — and not just details pertaining St. Nicholas himself. Emrich observes:

From Irving and the Dutch tradition he drew St. Nicholas, the traditional St. Nicholas. But from his past reading of the Knickerbocker History, Moore remembered most vividly the descriptions of the fat and jolly Dutch burghers with their white beards, red cloaks, wide leather belts, and leather boots. So, when he came to write a poem for his children, the traditional and somewhat austere St. Nicholas was transformed into a fat and jolly Dutchman. Also, from "The Children's Friend" of the year before, which he had probably purchased for his own youngsters, he drew not one lone reindeer, but created the new immortal and fanciful eight.
Still, it seems reasonable to suppose that Moore's most profound inspiration came not from his readings but from a keen appreciation of his audience. He wasn't writing for publication, but to delight his own six children. To that end, he transformed the legendary figure of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, into Santa Claus, a fairy tale character for children. It was perhaps Moore's greatest contribution to the tradition, and at least partially explains Santa Claus' overwhelming popularity in American culture ever since.

'A mere trifle'

Moore, stodgy creature of academe that he was, refused to have the poem published despite its enthusiastic reception by everyone who read it. His argument that it was beneath his dignity evidently fell on deaf ears, because the following Christmas "A Visit from St. Nicholas" found its way after all into the mass media when a family member submitted it to an out-of-town newspaper. The poem was an "overnight sensation," as we would say today, but Moore would not acknowledge authorship of it until fifteen years later, when he reluctantly included it in a volume of collected works. He referred to the poem "a mere trifle."

The irony of this, as Duncan Emrich points out, is that for all his protestations, Professor Clement Clarke Moore is now remembered for practically nothing else at all.

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