Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863) accomplished much during his lifetime.
He was a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
His philanthropy led to the development of the section of New York City known at Chelsea.
For many years, he served as a Board member for the New York Institution for the Blind.He produced the two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809).
He translated from the French of A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep (1811).
He authored a number of treatises and political pamphlets, the most well known being an 1804 attack on then president Thomas Jefferson, somewhat ponderously entitled “Observations Upon Certain passages on Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia Which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion and Establish a False Philosophy”.
He wrote the historical biography George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania (1850), which was apparently highly acclaimed at the time.
Throughout his life he also wrote poetry, which was published in the Portfolio and other periodicals of the day.
Despite all this scholarship and civic leadership, the work for which Mr. Moore had the greatest societal impact, is most famously acclaimed, and remembered to this day, is a simple poem he wrote on Christmas Eve 1822 for the entertainment of his own children entitled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. In it, he describes Saint Nicholas as “a right jolly old elf”, who arrives on Christmas Eve in an airborne sleigh propelled by eight fancifully-named flying reindeer and enters homes leaving toys for the children. We, of course, have come to know that poem as “The Night Before Christmas”, and recognize that it gave rise to a rather prodigious, endearing and enduring cultural (and commercial) mythology.
He never intended for the poem to be published. In fact, it’s said that he was embarrassed that his much more scholarly works were overshadowed by what he considered a trivial work written to calm his overly excited children on Christmas Eve. Over the years, there has been controversy regarding its true authorship, since he didn’t acknowledge it until years after its initial publication. Nonetheless, it has not only survived the passage of time, but has flourished and essentially shaped the Christmas experience of generations of children, not to mention many other literary works, plays, songs and motion pictures.
The story of Mr. Moore and his most enduring work provide interesting lessons and insights. It speaks to the fundamental human appetite for whimsy, willing suspension of reality, and our craving for optimism – the belief in human generosity, and that good things will come to us ‘just because’. Let’s acknowledge that the concept of a kindly, giving, fatherly Santa Claus hasn’t endured simply as a childhood fantasy. After all, children haven’t been purchasing or reading “The Night Before Christmas” themselves over the years. It has endured because those children grow into parents who retain some element or aspiration for that spirit, and wish to pass it along as a gift to their children.
The other lesson from Mr. Moore’s life story, of course, is that we don’t get to choose our legacy. History is replete with examples of people who are remembered not for what they intended or for what they believed they were building through their lives, but for their own personal attributes and how those attributes affected those around them and those who followed. The passage of time provides a harsh and impartial judgment of the worth of what we do. Empires and civilizations rise and crumble. The names and stories of those who led them fade into obscurity “as dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly”, but the human spirit, with all its foibles and idiosyncrasies endures and, with it, the memory of those who express it in various forms. Admiration for those creative, artistic people endures and grows over the years.
I close my last blog of 2015 with a reproduction of the initial, anonymous publication of Mr. Moore’s most enduring work as it appeared originally in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. A little hard to read, but I suspect you can fill in the words.
Happy Christmas, indeed.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
Thanks to Lynel Jackson for her always valuable assistance with the illustrations.