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The night before Christmas

December 24, 2008

ccm_lgOn Christmas Eve, New Yorkers, and we Episcopalians especially, are well to recall and to read aloud the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

The well-loved poem was penned by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), son of the 2nd Bishop of New York. He was graduated in 1798 from Columbia College and taught there as a professor of Oriental and Greek literature. From his estate, “Chelsea,” Moore donated 66 tracts of land which became (and remain) Chelsea Square, the campus of the General Theological Seminary. In 1821, shortly after the Seminary’s founding, he was appointed the first professor of Oriental languages, which post he held until 1850. He is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, atop Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.

Moore’s poem was perhaps singularly important in the canonization of Santa Claus in the American imagination. In New York and the Hudson Valley, where Dutch language and culture remained strong through the nineteenth century, the English “Father Christmas” folklore mingled with the Low Countries’ St. Nicholas tradition, a melding seen particularly in Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New-York. In the book, Sinterklaas was Anglicized into “Santa Claus”, and the character lost St. Nicholas’ bishop’s apparel, being pictured rather as a rotund Dutch sailor in a green winter coat (think here of Dickens’ depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol).

A Visit from St. Nicholas was the first to describe Santa Claus with his sleigh, eight reindeer, and as definitively heavyset. Indeed, who among us can forget the “bowl full of jelly”?

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is not ecclesiastical, nor is it religious, but it is ours: a great gift of New Yorkers and members of our Episcopal Church to America at large, and we are well to remember it on this day and to recall Mr. Moore who wrote it.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ 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 danc’d in their heads,
And Mama 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 the 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 the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a minature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,

“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top 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 dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler 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 of 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 laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d 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 fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprung 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!”1

1. As printed in the Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823.

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