27 November 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever (Part I)

Every year in December, a curious event used to take place at the Church of the Intercession, an Episcopal congregation located in upper Manhattan. Local children would meet for a Christmas musical pageant capped off by a poetry reading. Later, everyone traipses to the cemetery across the street, places a wreath on a grave, and sings carols before returning to the church for some snacks.

Until this, our pandemic year, this tradition has happened virtually unchanged every 24th of December for more than 120 years. The oldest continuing tradition in New York City, they call it. Older than, say, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The grave that has drawn congregants for more than 100 years belongs to a man named Clement Clarke Moore, who died in 1863.


In life Moore was a professor, a religious scholar and theologian, an occasional poet, and, curiously, a savvy real-estate developer who founded a Manhattan neighborhood called Chelsea, named after and built on land that once belonged to his family. But that’s not why anyone remembers Moore on this night. No one drags their child to a freezing cemetery to celebrate the life of a man who wrote a 1,000-page scholarly text entitled *The Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, in Two Volumes*. No. Moore is remembered because when he wasn’t busy cranking out his alefs, bets, and gimels, he apparently found time to write A Visit from Saint Nicholas, also known as ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

For much of his life, Moore downplayed the poem associated with his name. When he first read those immortal lines to family and friends gathered at his home one Christmas, he strictly admonished them not to share it outside his residence. One of his guests nevertheless snuck out a copy and sent it to a newspaper in Troy, New York, which printed it anonymously, a common practice at the time. Countless other newspapers followed, and reprinting those lines became an annual tradition.

Like many writers, Moore wanted to be remembered for his “serious” work. Later in life, whenever someone cajoled him to tell how he came to write the classic poem, he related the same story. One day in 1822, he went out to buy a Christmas turkey and saw a fat Dutchman sitting in a carriage smoking a long clay pipe. Inspired, Moore rushed home and dashed off the 56-line poem about a plump, “jolly old elf” in a feverish bout of creativity. The poem literally poured from his pen—without a single correction necessary.

Even today it’s hard to quantify how important the poem is. Every culture in Europe has its own tradition of a Christmas “gift-bringer.” The English have Father Christmas, the French Père Noël. Icelandic children are visited by 13 mischievous Yule “lads”—tiny dwarves who leave children sweets or rotting potatoes, depending on their behavior. The Dutch had Sinterklaas, a homegrown version of Saint Nicholas, the kindly, fourth-century Turkish-born Catholic bishop who was regarded as the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, reformed thieves, brewers, and, last but not least, children.

Though centuries had passed between the life of the real Saint Nicholas and the creation of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version was and still is visibly religious: he’s a dour-faced man who wears a bishop’s miter on his head, and carries a bishop’s crook in his hand, the symbol of a shepherd leading his flock.

Every culture’s gift-bringer behaves differently. My mother grew up in Italy believing in La Befana, an old witch who flies her broom into every Italian home on the eve of the Epiphany (January 6th). Every year on December 5, the night before the traditional Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Dutch children leave carrots in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’s white horse. Come morning, they find candy in those shoes if they have been good, a bundle of twigs if they have been bad.

The American Santa observes a totally different protocol, and everything we know about him was sketched out for the very first time in the poem we’re discussing. The poem codifies Santa: how he looks, which night of the year he visits, how he transports himself to your house, how he enters and leaves the dwelling, how he behaves while there, the precise number of his reindeer, and their names. So it’s not too crazy to suggest that the author of A Visit from Saint Nicholas wasn’t just dashing off a delightful little poem that day, he was building American culture.

And none too soon, if you believe the historians. At this time in history American cities were struggling with a very scary Yuletide dilemma. So much so that the upper-crusters who bought plots of land in Moore’s tranquil enclave Chelsea had come to dread Christmas. December in 1820s New York City was like frat-boy central. It wasn’t uncommon for idle, laid-off workers to kick in the doors of wealthy homes and to demand pocket money in exchange for a bawdy song. But then, sometime during that decade in New York City, the weeks of unceasing hooliganism abruptly stopped.

Because Santa.

At least two historians* argue that the city’s fathers conspired with the media machine of the time (newspapers and weekly magazines) and retailers to promote a new sort of tradition. Christmas was no longer about giving pocket change to the less fortunate. It was about a visit from Santa Claus and giving presents—not candy or fruit or homemade sweets but store-bought presents—to children. In doing so, responsible adults were ostensibly reenacting the story of the Christ child receiving gifts in the manger from the three Magi.

Once this powerful tradition took hold, a family man could no longer afford to be idle at the end of the calendar year. He had to stay off the streets and gainfully employed if he was going to be able to afford presents for his children and, as the tradition morphed, for every other member of his family. Societal pressure eradicated one tradition and ushered in another. This New York-style Christmas quickly spread to the rest of the nation, aided by women’s magazines and impossible-to-ignore retail advertisements in every influential American publication.

America needed Santa. Needed his benevolent, calming influence to correct and redirect a societal ill. But it would be wrong of us to say that the Santa of A Visit from Saint Nicholas was nothing but a potent and irritating tool for conspicuous consumption.

The poem should be celebrated on its own merits. If you’ve ever read poetry or essays written by amateur writers from the founding era of the United States till about the era of the Civil War, you’ve probably been bored to tears or scratched your eyes out. The Christmas poem is nothing like that. The writing’s clear, its images crisp. It’s probably the most famous American poem. Amazon currently lists no fewer than 732 versions of this public domain book. It’s the book every Christmas-celebrating kid ever born must receive at some point in their lives, along with The Grinch and The Polar Express.

But so few people know the story of the classic’s origin—or why they should even care. If you want to go “meta” on this, you could say that once upon a time a sweet genius conceived of a way to sidestep the messy Catholic-Protestant rift and get back to the joy of the old pagan Yule. Stripping away the baggage of Old World religions, this nimble writer created a magnanimous secular magician who brings presents to worthy children every year without fail. Sans miter, sans crook, sans religious robes, this Santa is, frankly, the perfect, nondenominational gift-bringer for a nation of immigrants. How lucky we are! How truly blessed, that this magical tale was bequeathed to us by a humble New Yorker whose name we hardly know but whose words still give us all the feels!

There’s just one problem with everything I’ve just told you.

It may all be a bright shining lie.

I'm partial to the Charles Santore edition.

* * * 

* Sources for this article include two wonderful books: The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Steven Nissenbaum; and Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. See you—with the conclusion—in three weeks!


  1. A great story, whether true or not. How do we know if the original St. Nicholas actually went around tossing dowries into girls' bedrooms? Either way, one of my earliest Christmas books was a large (to my small fingers) book of Twas the Night Before Christmas, complete with real fur on Santa's hat on the cover! There's glory for you!

    1. I think tossing dowries into girls' bedrooms is probably the most believable of all the miracles ascribed to that saint!

  2. Well done, and a good comeback to the beef about commercialism. My granddaughter read the poem at Xmas dinner last year, waiting for the whole family to supply the rhymes.

    1. That's the amazing thing about that poem, and why I think it really is the nation's most well-known poem. Even if someone had never heard it before, they'd probably be able to predict the end of each rhyming line!

  3. About 10 years ago, around Xmas, husband & I were doing some shopping at Kmart. (Remember Kmart?) He has a full set of facial foliage, graying hair, & his stomach was bigger then than now. A little boy about seven years old saw him & kept following us around the store, hiding between the aisles when he saw us looking at him. His mother made him stop following us but I know the kid suspected he was actually Santa.

    1. I love that! And if I had been there, Elizabeth, I would have been following him too!

  4. Oh no! I was so caught up in the story, I want it to be true. Oh please, please.

    When I was a kid, my mother set out what I think is called an advent calendar. This was a cardboard house with numbered windows, 1-25, matching the days in December until the first day of Christmas. When windows were opened, this particular calendar related the Visit from St. Nicholas poem, a couple of lines per window. Pretty cool.

    1. That is pretty cool. I've seen some very elaborate advent calendars over the years, some with a nice piece of chocolate or similar candy behind the window or door. But I've never seen one with the Christmas poem!


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