Clement Clarke Moore

Scholar Wrote a Classic Christmas Poem, Though Some Dispute His Authorship

Reproduction of painting of Clement Clarke Moore
Clement Clarke Moore. Getty Images

Clement Clarke Moore was a scholar of ancient languages who is remembered today because of a poem he wrote to amuse his children. His memorable work, widely known as “The Night Before Christmas” appeared anonymously in newspapers beginning in the early 1820s, titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

Decades would pass before Moore claimed he had written it. And over the past 150 years there have been hotly disputed claims that Moore did not really write the famous poem.

If you accept that Moore was the author, then, along with Washington Irving, he helped to create the character of Santa Claus. In Moore’s poem some of the traits associated with Santa today, such as his use of eight reindeer to pull his sleigh, were established for the very first time.

As the poem gained popularity over several decades in the mid-1800s, Moore's depiction of Santa Claus became central to how others portrayed the character.

The poem has been published countless times and the reciting of it remains a cherished Christmas tradition. Perhaps no one would be more surprised by its enduring popularity than its author, who was, during his lifetime, highly regarded as a very serious professor of difficult subjects.

The Writing of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”

According to an account Moore gave to the New York Historical Society when he was in his eighties and presented them with a hand-written manuscript of the poem, he had first written it simply to entertain his children (he was the father of six in 1822).

The character of St. Nicholas was, Moore, said, inspired by an overweight New Yorker of Dutch descent who lived in his neighborhood. (Moore's family estate became Manhattan's present day Chelsea neighborhood.)

Moore apparently had no intention of ever publishing the poem. It first appeared in print on December 23, 1823, in the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in upstate New York.

According to published accounts from the late 19th century, a daughter of a minister from Troy had stayed with Moore's family a year earlier and heard a recitation of the poem. She was impressed, transcribed it, and passed it along to a friend who edited the newspaper in Troy.

The poem began to appear in other newspapers every December, always appearing anonymously. About 20 years after its first publication, in 1844, Moore included it in a book of his own poems. And by that time some newspapers had credited Moore as the author. Moore presented several handwritten copies of the poem to friends and organizations, including the copy given to the New York Historical Society.

The Dispute About Authorship

A claim that the poem had been written by Henry Livingston dates to the 1850s, when descendants of Livingston (who had died in 1828) asserted that Moore was wrongfully taking credit for what had become a very popular poem. The Livingston family had no documentary evidence, such as a manuscript or a newspaper clipping, to support the claim. They simply claimed their father had recited to the poem to them as early as 1808.

The assertion that Moore hadn’t written the poem was generally not taken seriously.

However, Don Foster, a scholar and professor at Vassar College who employs “linguistic forensics,” had claimed in 2000 that “A Night Before Christmas” was probably not written by Moore. His conclusion was widely publicized, yet it was also widely disputed.

There may never be a definitive answer as to who wrote the poem. But the controversy has captured the public imagination to the extent that in 2013 a mock trial, dubbed "The Trial Before Christmas," was held at the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy, New York. Lawyers and scholars presented evidence arguing that either Livingston or Moore had written the poem.

The evidence presented by both sides in the argument ranged from the unlikelihood that someone with Moore's stern personality would have written the poem to specific notes on language and the meter of the poem (which only matches one other poem written by Moore).

The Life and Career of Clement Clarke Moore

Again, a reason for speculation about the authorship of the famous poem is simply because Moore was regarded as a very serious scholar. And a cheerful holiday poem about a “jolly old elf” is like nothing else he had ever written.

Moore was born in New York City on July 15, 1779. His father was a scholar and a prominent citizen of New York who served as the rector of Trinity Church and the president of Columbia College. The elder Moore administered the last rites to Alexander Hamilton after he was wounded in his famous duel with Aaron Burr.

Young Moore received a very good education as a boy, entered Columbia College at the age of 16, and received a degree in classical literature in 1801. He could speak Italian, French, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He was also a competent architect and a talented musician who enjoyed playing the organ and the violin.

Deciding to follow an academic career, rather than becoming a clergyman like his father, Moore taught for decades at the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in New York City. He published a number of articles in various newspapers and magazines. He was known to oppose the policies of Thomas Jefferson, and occasionally published articles on political subjects.

Moore would also publish poetry on occasion, though none of his published work was anything like “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

Scholars could argue that the difference in the writing style could mean he didn’t write the poem. Yet it’s also likely that something written simply for the enjoyment of his children would be quite different than a poem published for a general audience.

Moore died in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1863. The New York Times briefly mentioned his death on July 14, 1863 without referring to the famous poem. In the following decades, however, the poem kept being reprinted, and it by the late 19th century newspapers regularly ran stories about him and the poem.

According to an article, published in the Washington Evening Star on December 18, 1897, an 1859 edition of the poem published as a small book with drawings by a prominent illustrator, Felix O.C. Darley had made "A Visit From St. Nicholas" extremely popular just before the Civil War. Of course, since them the poem has been reprinted countless times, and recitations of it are a standard component of Christmas pageants and family gatherings.