Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 15: Clement Moore’s “Trifle” That Became A Masterpiece

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”

With these words an obscure scholar from penned a work for his children that became a classic piece of literature read to children generation after generation.

Clement Clarke Moore was born on July 15, 1779, the only son of Benjamin and Charity Clarke Moore. The Moore family was a family of wealth and education. His father was a professor, then president, of Columbia College as well as an Episcopal bishop in New York City and the rector of Trinity Church.

Moore was home schooled during his early years, with his father tutoring him and both of his parents encouraging his natural tendency toward languages and music. Later he would attend Columbia College, and would graduate first in his class in 1798. At Columbia he would earn a BA and in 1801 a M.A.

He was thirty-four when he married nineteen-year-old Catharine Elizabeth Taylor in 1813, settling at Chelsea, in a country estate in Manhattan. They would have 9 children. Catharine would pass away in 1830 and leaving Moore with seven children between the ages of three and fifteen. Moore would not remarry, and would be solely responsible for his children’s upbringing and education.

The Moore family owned extensive land in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Moore’s gift of sixty acres of land in 1819 made possible the establishment of the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1819. In 1821 Moore was made a professor at the Seminary, a position he would hold until 1850. While at the Seminary he taught Oriental languages, biblical learning, and the interpretation of scripture. Ten years before his helping to establish the Seminary, he would compile a two-volume Hebrew dictionary in 1809 to assist in the translation and understanding of the Old Testament titled “A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language”. Volume I contained "an explanation of every word which occurs in the Psalms"; while volume 2 was "a lexicon and grammar of the whole language." The Preface offers a mode of study which will enable "any person acquainted with the general principles of language, without the aid of a teacher, to read and understand the Holy Scriptures in the original Hebrew."

Moore is also considered as the savior of Greenwich Village in New York. When the state government was planning to extend a grid of streets into the Village, Moore anonymously authored a sixty-page pamphlet that contained such persuasive arguments against the plan that the street network never entered the Village, preserving its unique culture and atmosphere.

In 1822 Moore penned a story as a Christmas gift for his children. “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, which later became recognized and popularly known from its first line “Twas The Night Before Christmas”, was intended for his family, and might never had been shared with the world if not for one of Moore’s relatives, a Miss Butler, who copied the poem and who would take the copy to the Troy Sentinel. There it would be published anonymously in the Sentinel on December 23, 1823, with Moore accepting credit of authorship in 1837. He did not want the poem published because he felt, as an academician, that the poem was a mere trifle, and it was beneath his professional dignity to have it published. Yet, the poem when published anonymously a year later, it was an overnight sensation. The Troy Sentinel would hint that Moore was the author in 1829. Moore would reluctantly include his poem in a book of poetry that he wrote in 1844.

An anecdote on the origin of the poem goes as follows:

“On Christmas Eve 1822, Reverend Clement Moore’s wife was roasting turkeys for distribution to the poor of the local parish, a yearly tradition discovered that she was short one turkey, she asked Moore to venture into the snowy streets to obtain another. He called for his sleigh and coachman, and drove “downtown” to Jefferson Market, which is now the Bowery section of New York City, to buy the needed turkey. Moore composed the poem while riding in his sleigh; his ears obviously full of the jingle of sleigh bells. He returned with the turkey and the new Christmas poem. After dinner that evening, Moore read the new verses to his family, to the evident delight of his children.”

As often happens, claims arose that Moore was not the author of the famous poem. In 2000 – nearly 180 years after the fact, Vassar professor Don Foster published a book claiming that “The Night Before Christmas” was actually written by a different New Yorker, Major Henry Livingston Jr. For details you can read the article here and arrive at your own conclusion. Despite the rise of other claimants, scholars in general still attribute the poem to Moore.

Moore would pass away at his summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1863 – just five days before his eighty-fourth birthday. He was buried at the Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan. Oddly enough, as much as he regarded his poem as a trifle, it is his poem that he is remembered – not for his academic works.


There are no Clement Moore biographies at our local library.


Jewish Virtual Library
New York Institute for Special Education
The Night Before Christmas
Urban Legends


01. Handwritten copy of Twas the Night
02. Portrait of a young Moore
03. Portrait, Wikipedia

04. Cover by Mary Clement Ogden, Moore’s daughter
05. Gravestone, Find-a-Grave by Erik Lander


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