On Christmas Eve night, while his wife and children sleep, a man awakens to noises outside his house. Looking out the window, he sees St. Nicholas in an air-borne sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. After landing his sleigh on the roof, the saint enters the house through the chimney, carrying a sack of toys with him. The man watches Nicholas filling the children’s Christmas stockings hanging by the fire, and laughs to himself. They share a conspiratorial moment before the saint bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, Saint Nicholas wishes everyone a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
A Visit from St. Nicholas
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;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
According to legend, A Visit was composed by Moore on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on asleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historicalSaint Nicholas. While Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today, he borrowed other aspects such as the names of the reindeer. The poem was first published anonymously in theTroy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, having been sent there by a friend of Clement Clarke Moore,and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. It was first attributed in print to Moore in 1837. Moore himself acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece.
Moore’s conception of St. Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving‘s (see below), but Moore portrayed his “jolly old elf” as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants — who saw Christmas as the result of “Catholic ignorance and deception” — still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore “deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations.” As a result, “New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”
In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, editor Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of “Donder and Blitzen” he adopted, rather than the earlier Dutch version from 1823, “Dunder and Blixem.” Both phrases translate as “Thunder and Lightning” in English, though the German word for thunder is “Donner”, and the words in modern Dutch would be “Donder en Bliksem.”
Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities: For example, breast in “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow” is frequently bowdlerized tocrest, the archaic ere in “But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight” is frequently replaced with as, and “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night” is frequently rendered with the modern North American locution “‘Merry Christmas’” and with “goodnight” as a single word.