Literary Origins of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ and Our Modern Santa Claus

by | Dec 18, 2021 | Quick Facts

If you picture Santa Claus as plump and jolly and pulled by reindeer, you may have this poem to thank. Clement Clark Moore/New-York Historical Society

Literary Origins of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ and Our Modern Santa Claus

by | Dec 18, 2021 | Quick Facts

If you picture Santa Claus as plump and jolly and pulled by reindeer, you may have this poem to thank. Clement Clark Moore/New-York Historical Society
‘Twas the Night before Christmas' was instrumental in crafting the modern American version of Santa Claus and our Christmas traditions.

Republished with permission from The Conversation, by Melissa Chim, General Theological Seminary

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known by its opening line “‘Twas the Night before Christmas,” has a special place among Christmas traditions, right alongside hot chocolate, caroling and bright lights. It has also inspired the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man sporting red and a round belly.

But this poem has been steeped in controversy, and debate still looms over who the true author is. Traditionally, Clement C. Moore – a 19th-century scholar at the General Theological Seminary in New York, where I work as a reference librarianhas been credited with writing the poem in 1822 for his children. Every December, library staff shares our multiple copies of the poem in an exhibit to celebrate the holiday season.

No matter who wrote it, the poem is a fascinating object that has shaped Christmases past, present – and maybe yet to come.

A Changing Santa Claus

Santa Claus had undergone many makeovers in the Western imagination by the time readers were introduced to “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.”

Some scholars argue that the idea of a magical being bringing gifts and good cheer can be traced all the way back to the Greek goddess Artemis. St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop in what is now Turkey, was said to have destroyed a temple to Artemis, which he believed was idolatrous. Afterward, some of Artemis’ traits began showing up in legends as characteristics of St. Nicholas. He became known for generosity, such as giving children presents and gifting dowries to young women in need.

His feast day, Dec. 6, became a popular celebration in medieval Europe. By the modern era, images of St. Nick portrayed him as a tall, thin, stern man in a bishop’s hat who brought children both gifts and punishments. In German legend, he was accompanied by Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon creature that meted out a range of punishments to bad children, from mild to violent.

In Victorian Britain, Christmas became a festive holiday, with much feasting and drinking in addition to a religious celebration. In the early 19th century, Santa was sometimes depicted as a reveler from the lower classes – someone in need of charity, rather than a gift-giver himself.

As Christmas began to evolve into a family holiday, the image of Santa changed as well. Now, his jolliness came from the Christmas spirit, not feasting, and his rosy cheeks were the result of joy, not alcohol.

“‘Twas the Night before Christmas” was instrumental in crafting the modern American version of Santa Claus. The poem describes St. Nicholas as “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,” with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, a snow white beard and a round belly. Throughout the poem, Santa is depicted as a jolly elf bringing joy with his reindeer-led sleigh to both children and adults.

Thomas Nast, a Civil War-era cartoonist with the magazine Harper’s Weekly, created the enduring image of Santa Claus in a series of 33 drawings published between 1863 and 1886. The first of these drawings is inspired by the poem’s depiction of Santa carrying a sack full of presents with his sled pulled by reindeer.

Our library holds a copy of Nast’s book “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race,” containing his illustrations for “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The introduction to our copy is written by Nast’s grandson, Thomas Nast St. Hill, who inscribed and donated it to the library in 1971. In some images, Nast used Santa to send a political message – such as one illustration that depicts him with toys related to battle, showing his support for Union soldiers.

Thomas Nast’s cartoons, such as this one during the Civil War, helped shape Americans’ modern image of St. Nick. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


Authorship Debate

Two hundred years after the poem debuted, one fundamental question remains: Who is its true author?

The poem first appeared anonymously in a New York newspaper, the Troy Sentinel, on Dec, 23, 1823, and was reprinted many times. The New York Book of Poetry cited Moore, the 19th-century biblical scholar, as the author in 1837, and in 1844 he included it in his book of poems. Several years after the poem’s publication in the Sentinel, editor Orville Holley wrote that the author was “by birth and residence [belonging] to the city of New York, and that he is a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and writer than many of more noisy pretensions.” That’s an apt description of Moore, according to Niels Sonne, a librarian at General Theological Seminary in the 20th century who published an article about the authorship controversy. Moore was officially cited as the author in The New York Book of Poetry in 1837.

But the descendants of Henry Livingston Jr., a poet and farmer from an influential New York family, argue that he wrote the famous poem as early as 1808 and was never properly credited. Relatives of Livingston have claimed that his manuscript was brought to Wisconsin, where it was destroyed in a fire in 1847. His defenders point to similarities with other poetry and witty satires he wrote, and argue that his fun personality was much more in keeping with “A Visit from St. Nicholas” than Moore’s. His grandson, William Sturgus Thomas, spent years collecting evidence in his grandfather’s favor, and his papers are housed at the New York Historical Society.

The Story Continues

Every December, the Seminary library displays all the original copies of the poem we own in addition to more modern retellings and illustrations. Our copy of Moore’s 1844 “Poems” has one significant detail: it’s signed by Moore to the Reverend Samuel Seabury, who was a professor at General Theological Seminary and also the grandson of the first Episcopal American bishop, Samuel Seabury. The inscription says: “To the Reverend Dr. Seabury, with the respect of his friend the author, July 1844.”

The library also owns Moore’s rare follow-up work, titled “The Night after Christmas,” which was published after his death in 1863. In this version, the children are visited by their doctor after having too many treats delivered by Santa – and the physician shares some similarities with Santa himself:

“His eyes how they twinkled! Had the doctor got merry?
His cheeks looked like Port and his breath smelt of Sherry…

But a wink of his eye when he physicked our Fred
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread…”

The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. We publish trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts for the general public and edited by our team of journalists.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us

Related Articles

Jan 14 2023

GOP-Led Missouri House Passes New Dress Code to Strip Women Lawmakers of ‘Right to Bare Arms’

The Missouri GOP banning women from showing their bare arms isn’t a sign of Shariah or Taliban—it’s a sign of right-wing ‘Christian’...
Jan 08 2023

Katie Porter Goes Viral Just Reading a Book

In a true less-is-more gesture, Katie Porter registered her disdain for the circus of the Congressional “treason caucus” holding up the Speaker vote for...
Jan 04 2023

Quick Facts: What Does the Speaker of the House Do?

The Speaker of the House is the most visible and authoritative spokesperson for the majority party in the House. Speakers articulate an agenda and explain legislative...
Dec 23 2022

The January 6th Committee’s Final Report Is Every Bit the Bombshell We Expected

The full document detailing Donald Trump’s betrayal of his oath and his attempted coup has now been released.
Nov 21 2022

By the Numbers: How the Supreme Court Paved the Way for the GOP House Majority

Recent actions—and inaction—by the right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for a Republican House majority.
Nov 14 2022

How Ballot Recounts Work in Colorado

The surprisingly competitive matchup between Boebert and Frisch has become Colorado’s closest congressional race since 2002 and will likely trigger a statutory...
Nov 13 2022

Why Misinformation About COVID Vaccines and Pregnancy Won’t Go Away

Before coronavirus vaccines were even released, a disinformation campaign used a moment of national and personal vulnerability to prey on those who were pregnant or who...
Nov 08 2022

Campaign Contributions: Following the Money in an Election Campaign

Campaign contributions can be a confusing web of super PACs, FEC filings and dark money. That’s why it is useful to know how to see who is paying who and trying to...
assorted-color filling book lot
Nov 06 2022

Examining the Futility of Book Banning

Book banning is an illiberal idea that undermines a long and honorable tradition of making knowledge and ideas widely available, making people free to choose what to...
Nov 01 2022

Making Liars Money: How Google’s Ad Business Funds Disinformation Around the World

The largest-ever analysis of Google’s ad practices on non-English-language websites reveals how the tech giant makes disinformation profitable.
Subscribe for Updates!

Subscribe for Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This