On Christmas Eve 1822, Santa Claus was born. Yet in various parts of the world, a man known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Abbot of Unreason, Julenissen and many other names had been associated with the Yule season since the fourth century.
Though his name and physical features were changed that evening in 1822, his deeds remained the same throughout the world. Dr. Clement C. Moore, an American minister, was returning to his Greenwich Village home Christmas Eve from New York’s Washington Market with a turkey to complete a gift basket for a poor family in his parish when he came upon an old friend and storyteller, Jan Duyekinck.
The old Dutchman with his long, white beard, had a never-ending collection of stories. Though Dr. Moore was eager to deliver his basket, he listened patiently as Duyekinck retold the tale of how Saint Nicholas (San Nicolaas in Dutch), the patron saint of children, passed out gifts in Holland on Christmas Eve.
Finally on his way again, the comical picture of the old Dutchman with his beard and stump of a pipe stimulated Dr. Moore’s imagination and he began visualizing a new Saint Nicholas. Amusing couplets like “when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” began taking shape in his mind. Phrases started coming quickly: “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”
By the time he reached home and his six children, he had composed in his mind the poem “Twas the Night before Christmas”. It not only gave Saint Nicholas a new look, but captured the Victorian charm of Moore’s neighborhood surroundings.
It was written strictly as a surprise for his family and not intended to be heard by anyone else, much less become a national institution. The following summer, however, a visiting relative from upstate New York copied the verses and submitted them to the editor of the Troy Sentinel who published the unsigned poem under the title “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. The paper was immediately swamped with requests to reprint it along with information about its author.
Dr. Moore refused to have his name signed to the “nonsensical poetry”, and was perplexed that these few lines scribbled down in less than an hour had become famous.
The picture of Santa that we know today actually came from the pen of Thomas Nast, a widely celebrated cartoonist, who was asked to illustrate it in 1863. The Dutch San Nicolaas was later converted to Santa Claus.
How Santa ever found room to land a complete reindeer/sleigh rig on steeply pitched rooftops dotted with chimney pots is an intriguing question. Just how Santa can physically go down all the chimneys in the world in one night, especially after spending several frantic weeks in thousands of department stores and malls, will no doubt be debated forever. Moore apparently figured it would be a piece of cake for a set of flying reindeer and a roly-poly, white-bearded man dressed in red and smoking a pipe.
In spite of the fantasy of the deeds of this legendary figure, Santa is always the holiday season’s biggest hero. Since that Christmas in 1822 when Pastor Moore dashed off the lines of the poem and read them to his children, fathers and mothers have read the beloved tale to excited children in countless homes around the world.