"'Twas the night before Christmas …: one of just four autograph manuscripts of Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas," one of the best-loved and most widely known poems ever written—and the only copy in private hands.
If he had not written "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Clement Moore would likely be hazily remembered today as a Hebrew scholar and influential ecclesiastic. Moore's donation, in 1819, of land in the Chelsea section of Manhattan allowed for the construction of General Theological Seminary, where he served as a professor of oriental and Greek literature until his retirement in 1850. But Moore did write the celebrated Christmas poem, and its fame has certainly eclipsed that gained by his two-volume Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809).
According to Moore family tradition, the poem was written, approrpiately enough, on Christmas Eve 1822, while Moore was on a coaching trip to the Bowery to buy the family's Christmas turkey. Moore read the poem that evening to his family, who were delighted by it, and the text evidently began to circulate among Moore's circle of friends in holograph and other manuscript copies. A visiting friend of Moore's children, Harriet Butler, made a transcription of the poem and the following December, she sent the text to her hometown newspaper, the Troy, New York, Sentinel. The poem appeared, unattributed, on 23 December 1823, below a note by the editor, Orville L. Holley, that praised the verses' "cordial goodness."
"A Visit from St. Nicholas" proved immediately and overwhelmingly popular. Its appearance in the Sentinel became an annual event, and other papers and almanacs, primers and anthologies began to publish it as well (for a record of these anonymous publications, see Anne Haight, The Night Before Christmas, Exhibition Catalogue, Pittsburgh, 1964). Moore, who perhaps believed the light tone of the poem to be at odds with his professional standing, did not acknowledge authorship of the poem until 1837, when Charles Fenno Hoffman's anthology, The New-York Book of Poetry, revealed Moore's name. Moore later included it in his 1844 collection of his own Poems.
From opening couplet ("'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house | not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse") to the closing pair ("But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night'"), Moore's verse narrative is as familiar to readers as any lines ever written. Built on a framework of tradition begun by Washington Irving and other "knickerbockers," Moore's poem was instrumental in establishing the holiday of Christmas as it is celebrated today.
It should be noted that there is a rival family claim to the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Don Foster's Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York, 2000) most recently boosted the claim that the poem came from the pen of a prominent resident of Poughkeepsie, Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748–1828). But Livingston's descendents and supporters have been trying to attribute the poem to him for over a century. The attribution has never gained credence simply because, as Joe Nickell demonstrated in "The Case of the Christmas Poem" (Manuscripts 55/1:5–10), "all of the evidence demonstrates—the evidence from the historical record, the manuscripts, the cultural history, and the testimony of contemporary witnesses, even the stylistic evidence—that Clement Clarke Moore wrote 'A Visit from St. Nicholas.'"
The present transcription is one of only four recorded autograph copies, and the only one not held by an institution. A copy made in 1853 is in the Stong Museum, Rochester, New York; an undated transcript probably written in 1856 is in the Huntington Library, San Marino; and a copy made in March 1862 at the request of the librarian of the New-York Historical Society is still in the Society's collection.
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