This year marks the 200th anniversary of the beloved Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” commonly known by its opening line: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore, this poem is largely credited with shaping the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly, rotund man who brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
In crafting his version of St. Nicholas, Moore drew inspiration from older European legends of gift-bearing figures like Sinterklaas as well as from his friend Washington Irving’s earlier stories depicting St. Nicholas as a portly, pipe-smoking Dutchman. Irving’s writings, particularly his 1809 work “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” featured a pipe-smoking St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a wagon, delivering presents. Though less defined than Moore’s subsequent portrayal, Irving’s whimsical version contributed to shaping the modern Santa Claus.
Additionally, the historical St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek bishop known for his generous gifts to the poor, was a primary inspiration. The transformation of this religious figure into the secular, beloved Santa Claus was a gradual process spanning centuries, with Moore’s poem being a pivotal moment in this evolution.
Moore described Santa as a right, jolly old elf with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and a round belly that shook when he laughed. He smoked a stump of a pipe and had a broad face and little round belly. This cheerful, kindly old man discovered children sleeping and filled their stockings with gifts before ascending the chimney and driving his sleigh away.
With this vivid, feel-good portrayal of Santa Claus, Moore captured the public’s imagination. His poem quickly became a beloved part of the American Christmas tradition, and its vision of Santa Claus as a magical bringer of gifts on Christmas Eve remains an essential part of the holiday mythology today. Many modern depictions of Santa in advertising, film, and art draw directly from Moore’s classic poem.
The 200th anniversary of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how a simple poem can have a lasting impact on popular culture and the collective imagination. It’s a testament to the power of storytelling and its ability to craft enduring myths. Moore’s poem has not only defined the look and personality of Santa Claus but also contributed to the magic of Christmas, making the holiday season a time of wonder and joy for generations.
Two hundred years after its publication, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” remains a beloved Christmas classic. Moore’s poem not only shaped our understanding of Santa Claus, but also captured the spirit of Christmasass itself – a time for joy, generosity, and the belief in something magical.