Good morning, it's Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, and 197 years ago today, Orville L. Holley, the publisher of a newspaper in upstate New York, printed a poem that launched a billion presents -- and forever altered American children's expectations of Christmas morning. The paper was the Troy Sentinel, a semi-weekly that enjoyed only a brief nine-year run of solvency from 1823 to 1832. It would be long forgotten now except for the poem Holley published. It was originally called "A Visit From St. Nicholas," although it would soon be known far and wide by a title taken from its first line.
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
Within a few years, the poem was credited to a religious scholar named Clement C. Moore, authorship that has been recently questioned by literary revisionists. These claims are sketchy and utterly unpersuasive, however, so in a moment I'll offer a word or two on the life of the marvelous Clement Moore, who I've written about previously during Christmas week.
On a personal note, the part of story that follows is one I first related seven years ago. At the time, our first granddaughter had just arrived. Now, there are three, along with a baby grandson (and another on the way), which means that the Clement Moore words I cite below mean even more to me now -- as you will see.
Clement Clarke Moore was born in New York during the Revolutionary War and died during the Civil War. His family home was located at present-day Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street in Manhattan; the grounds of the estate encompassed an area that today runs from 18th to 24th streets between Eighth and 10th avenues.
He was, as we would say now, "home-schooled" before going to college at nearby Columbia, graduating first in his class in 1798, as his father had 30 years before. He became a professor of Greek literature and a scholar of Hebrew, helped found a New York church and a divinity school, published poems, and was a generous contributor and board member for an institution then called the New York Institution for the Blind. (If you're looking for a worthy cause to support during this season of giving, it is now called the New York Institute for Special Education.)
Moore's most memorable contribution, "The Night Before Christmas," came from his labors in another vocation, one he clearly considered a calling: caring for his large family. In 1813, while in his early thirties, he had wooed and married 19-year-old Catharine Elizabeth Taylor. As a scholar, he could be austere. But his bride unlocked something passionate inside this man. He not only wrote poems to her while they were courting, he carved her name into trees.
Although it was a true love story, it didn't last long enough. Catharine bore nine children, seven of whom survived past infancy, but she died in 1830. Moore wrote his wife one last poem, this one chronicling his grief, called "To Southey," and then devoted the rest of his domestic life to caring for a brood that at the time spanned ages 3 to 15.
"A Visit From St. Nicholas" was apparently penned in 1822 for those children, read aloud to them on Christmas Eve and then sent by a family friend to the Troy newspaper the following year. It was published on this date in 1823. But Moore didn't stop writing poems for his family, even after his wife was taken from him.
In 1849, he wrote verses for a granddaughter that included these lines:
The house is all too dull and quiet
I love to hear you romp and riot
When e'er you're full of harmless fun
I dearly love to see you run.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.