Is That You, Santa Claus?

Little kids today rarely, if ever, dream of sugarplums on Christmas Eve. But thanks to a poem commonly known as “’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” they may try desperately to stay awake long enough to hear the skittle of tiny reindeer hoofs on the roof and perhaps catch a glimpse of the jolly old elf they know as Santa Claus.

In fact, even children who don’t celebrate Christmas can’t escape the tale of the magical midnight intruder who delivers toys to good little girls and boys. “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (the poem’s real title) first appeared in the Dec. 23 1823 edition of the Troy Sentinel, in Troy, N.Y., and over the years has become one of the most well known poems in the English language. The Sentinel described it as “altogether charming” and published it, even though it had been submitted to the paper anonymously.

What child – or child within the adult – can resist the image of a soot-tinged, laughing bearer of booty, stuffing stockings and casting a conspiratorial wink to a wondering father?

About 20 years after its first publication, Clement Clarke Moore, a rather serious, even dour, American professor, admitted he had written the poem for his children. He apparently had drawn on the portly Dutch burghers of New York, where he lived, for inspiration. His cheerful St. Nicholas was more like them than an ascetic holy man. (The Chelsea district in New York City derives its name from Moore’s estate, which he sold bit by bit or donated to the Episcopal church.)

Given Moore’s scholarly background and decades-long reluctance to admit authorship of the work, some believe he could not have written the child-delighting story, suggesting instead that its creator was another New Yorker by the name of Major Henry Livingston, Jr. Since no original manuscript exists, this theory remains unproven. Whatever the truth may be, the “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” provided significant inspiration for artist Haddon Sundblom’s friendly images of Santa Claus for the Coca Cola Company’s 1931 Christmas advertisements and for years after. Moore’s St. Nick would become “the Real Thing” – and the figure every little kid on Christmas Eve hoped to spy.

—Jayne MacAulay