Santa Claus Worldwide distills the cheerful essence of Christmas from many sources and studies, old and new. In addition to his wide reading, author Tom A. Jerman has brought a wealth of personal experience
The most important event in the history of Santa Claus occurred quite by happenstance in Troy, New York, on December 23, 1823. In 1821, a printer and bookseller named William B. Gilley and an illustrator named Arthur Stansbury published an eight-page booklet titled The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, which told the story of a jolly, bearded and warmly bundled old man who traveled the world in a sleigh pulled by a flying reindeer (and perhaps more that were not included in the illustrations). His fur hat proclaimed his name, “Santeclaus,” and his reindeer and sleigh parked on the rooftops while he entered the home through the chimney and left gifts for good boys and girls–and switches for bad ones–in stockings the children hung out the night before. Although the story told by the illustrations would last two centuries, and counting, the accompanying poem, clumsy and mean-spirited, was not so much fun.
Clement C. Moore was a professor of oriental literature at the General Theological Seminary, a few hundred yards from Gilley’s printshop on south Broadway in Manhattan. Moore was an only child born to great wealth and prestige; his father was the Episcopal Bishop of New York and president of Columbia College (formerly known as King’s College and later as Columbia University), and had inherited huge tracts of land in Manhattan, whereas his mother was the great-great-granddaughter of one of the leading Dutch businessmen in New Amsterdam, Oloff van Cortlandt, and inherited even more land.
Their estate, called Chelsea, is now the Manhattan neighborhood of the same name, but Moore maintained a winter house close to Gilley’s print shop. Moore was educated at Columbia College, where he graduated first in his class, following which he obtained a master’s degree, wrote a treatise on Hebrew and became a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at General Theological Seminary. He was a semi-professional poet; part of his appointment required translating poetry from other languages but he wrote and published a good deal of poetry on his own initiative. He had eight children, two of whom died young, and he raised the rest by himself after his wife died.
In 1821, it appears, Moore purchased a copy of The Children’s Friend for “St. Nicholas,” the name used by the family for the Christmas gift-giver, to leave in his oldest daughter’s stocking on Christmas Eve. Although not well documented, the most logical explanation of what prompted Moore to write the poem was that Moore (or, perhaps, his wife) found the story too mean-spirited and decided to write a kid-friendly version to read to his children the following year. There are several different stories about when and how Moore wrote that poem but the most likely answer seems to be he did it over the course of 1822, producing a poem that has last two hundred years, and still reads as fresh as it did two hundred years ago. On December 24, 1822, Moore read the poem to an extended group of friends and family. He did not give it a title, and it was initially published without Moore’s knowledge as “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Between the 1820s and the 1860s, it was frequently titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas or Santa Claus” and as Santa’s fame eclipsed that of St. Nick it became known by the first line, “Twas the night before Christmas.”
Although some have claimed Moore did not acknowledge authorship until 1844, correspondence discovery more recently shows that in 1837 he provided it to a well-known editor preparing a compilation of poetry written by New Yorkers. Moore’s failure to claim the poem as his own work for fifteen years after it was published has been variously interpreted as embarrassment over attaching his name to a poem he considered beneath a Classics scholar or evidence it was actually written by someone else. Most plausibly, however, Moore knew that the poem could be interpreted to violate the copyright on The Children’s Friend, which did not expire until 1835 or 1836. Whatever Moore’s motive, the generally accepted belief has been that one of those present, most likely Harriett Butler, the daughter of an Episcopal priest in Troy, N.Y., obtained a copy of the poem which was given anonymously to Orville Holley, the editor of The Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel.
Holley published it on December 23, 1823, with an editor’s introduction stating that he did not know who wrote the poem about “Sante Claus,” who Holley described as “that unwearied patron of children—that homely and delightful personage of parental kindness.” Holley wrote:
“We hope our little patrons, both lads and lasses, will accept it as proof of our unfeigned good-will towards them—as a token of our warmest wish that they may have many a merry Christmas; that they may long retain their beautiful relish for those unbought homebred joys, which derive their flavor from filial piety and fraternal love.”
It would be almost four decades before the poem gained the fame for which it is known, something that happened only when the nation’s large illustrated newspapers like Harper’s Weekly combined Moore’s poem with illustrations of Santa by Thomas Nast and others on the front page each December and publishers like McLoughlin Bros. began to publish colorfully illustrated children’s versions of the poem.
Thus, the first time Orville Holley, a small town newspaper editor, read the poem he did so with the understanding that no one but Moore’s family and a few friends had ever heard it, no distinguished professor of literature had labeled it a great work, no focus group had pronounced the poem likeable, and few of the traditions we associate with Santa Claus yet existed, in part because it was Moore’s poem that created those traditions. Nevertheless, Holley understood, intuitively, what the tradition of Santa Claus would mean.
The other important fact about the original publication is that Holley’s introduction used the name “Sante Claus,” not St. Nicholas, with the context indicating that Holley believed his readers were already aware of a Christmas gift-giver named Sante Claus. One could attribute that the name to The Children’s Friend, published in 1821, but w e know from False Stories Corrected, a book published in 1813, that “Santiklaw” was used among New York children as the name of a gift-giver indistinguishable from Moore’s character except that Santiklaw did not have a flying reindeer. We also know that Santa Claus and several close variations were used in Germany to identify secular substitutes for St. Nicholas, and Jones stated in “Knickerbocker Santa Claus” that Santa Claus had long been used in Switzerland and southern Germany.
Accordingly, one can infer that Sante Claus and Santa Claus were names used for secular give-givers in Germany, and that because the gift-giver in The Children’s Friend and Moore’s poem appeared to be the same rough-hewn, bearded, fur-clad figure, Americans from Protestant nations would have preferred the names Sante Claus or Santa Claus to St. Nicholas, best known as a Catholic saint (although Moore, the son of the Episcopalian bishop of New York, undoubtedly would have known he was on the Anglican calendar of saints as well). Whether or not that explanation is accurate, we can say that Moore’s poem, whose story was clearly borrowed from Gilley and Stansbury even if the poem was much different, created the practice in which the gift-giver arrived after the children had gone to sleep on the night before Christmas and the children awoke early to see what he had brought, a practice that fundamentally changed the nature of Christmas from drunken revelry the night before to a family-friendly event on Christmas morning. The name Santa Claus, in turn, probably arrived in New York with German immigrants and simply stuck to the American gift-giver.
Tom A. Jerman
This article is adapted from my book, Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Midwinter Gift-Bringers (Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland & Co., 2020)