EDITOR’S NOTE: Versions of this story were previously published in the Dec. 24, 2015, edition of The Livingston County News, and the Dec. 24, 1999 edition of The (Batavia) Daily News.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or as it’s more popularly known “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a holiday staple for many.
It was a beloved story read often during my own childhood growing up in Lewis County in northern New York. But more than tradition, it was because of a long-held belief that Constable Hall, an old mansion turned historical museum in the southern Lewis County town of Constableville, provided inspiration for writer Clement Clarke Moore, who was a frequent visitor to the mansion.
Constable Hall is something of a contemporary of Livingston County’s Wadsworth Homestead, which was built in 1804. Construction on the federal-style limestone Constable Hall began in 1810 and was completed in 1819.
Moore sent the Constable family a hand-written copy of the poem, which has been lost. The museum does still have a chess set sent by Moore in its collection.
Today, we share the story of Clement Clarke Moore, his poem and Constable Hall.
Clement Clarke Moore provided us with the defining image of Santa Claus: a chubby and plump man with twinkling eyes, cheeks like roses, a nose like a cherry, and a beard as white as new-fallen snow.
Yet the 19th century poet was a reluctant mythmaker.
For more than two decades Moore denied authorship of the work that he is most-remembered for, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known today as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Moore was a writer and scholar, described as a dour, strait-laced academician. By 19, he was fluent in French, Hebrew, Italian, Greek and Latin. He had degrees from Columbia University. Among his writings was a dictionary of the Hebrew language.
Fortunately, he had children.
A gift to his children
“The rhyme is easy to remember, and the imagery is magical,” Sandra Gillard, retired children’s librarian at Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia, said of “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“It captures the excitement every child feels waiting for Christmas morning.”
Moore penned the story as a gift to his six children for Christmas 1822. He read it aloud for the first time fireside at the family’s Chelsea mansion to an audience of his children, relatives, servants and slaves. It is unlikely he ever meant for it to travel beyond their ears.
But a year later, a relative from Troy, Sarah Harriet Butler, copied the poem and gave it to the editor of her local newspaper.
The ballad of Santa Claus, appearing anonymously as “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” was first published Dec. 23, 1823, in the Sentinel in Troy. It appeared on page three. Nothing flashy, just one more item among five columns of solid text.
An editor’s note along with it described the piece as having a “spirit of cordial goodness in it, a playfulness of fancy, and a benevolent alacrity to enter into the feelings and promote the simple pleasures of children, which are altogether charming.”
The note said the newspaper was running the piece as a gift to its readers.
“We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children – that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness – Santa Claus,” wrote the paper’s editor, Orville Holley.
“We hope our little patrons, both lads and lasses, will accept it as proof of our unfeigned good will toward them – as a token of our warmest wish that they may have many a merry Christmas ...”
The poem quickly spread from newspaper to newspaper.
Moore, meanwhile, spent many years following its publication denying that he was the author.
“He was a scholar, and didn’t want to be recognized as being the author of such a thing,” said Paul Hickcock, director of the Troy Public Library, where the original publication of the poem is preserved.
In 1844, Moore finally included “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in a collection of his poetry.
Poet, educator, scholar
Moore, from the Long Island town of Chelsea, was the only son of Benjamin Moore, the president of Columbia College and bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.
Clement Moore graduated top of his class from Columbia College in 1798. In 1801, he received a master’s degree in Oriental and Classical Literature. He was later a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York.
Not much is known about when Moore finally confessed to writing his famous poem.
“At some point before ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ was published with his name on it, someone finally convinced him that it was a good story,” Hickcock said.
Such a good story, in fact, that readers clipped it from their newspapers and saved copies. It has been reprinted countless times, and more than 40 editions are on record in the Library of Congress.
Inspired by upstate visit
Moore may have been inspired to write his famous poem on a trip to the state’s North Country in 1822. He was visiting a cousin, Mary Eliza McVickar Constable, in Shalerville (later renamed Constableville), on the Tug Hill plateau.
Constable’s husband had died in 1821. She and her four children lived in a mansion (now Constable Hall, a historical museum).
Moore was a frequent visitor to the house, said John P. Constable Jr., 83, who lived in the Hall in 1948, the last of the family to call it home. (Constable, the last generation of Constables to live at the mansion, died in 2006.)
Constable Hall has a large porch – 125 feet long, that brings to mind the line “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!”; a chimney in every room, which may have inspired such a line as “Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound”; and window shutters that opened in – possibly Moore’s inspiration to write “Away to the window I flew like a flash/Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.”
And tending the garden was a Dutchman named Pieter. As one story goes, Pieter was rather plump and downright jolly. He would be Moore’s inspiration for Santa Claus, says Constable.
Other sources, say the inspiration came from a roly-poly Dutchman who drove Moore’s sleigh home from Greenwich Village on Christmas Eve 1822, or from more literary sources.
Regardless, the modern description of Santa Claus was born.
His worthy friends
Moore sent the Constable family a hand-written copy of the poem, but Constable said he doesn’t know what happened to it. The original sold at a Christie’s auction for $255,000.
The museum still has a chess set sent by Moore.
Then there’s a notebook that John P. Constable Jr. had which belonged to his great uncle, Casimir Constable, the third-generation owner of the Hall. The book contains a copy of Moore’s poem with a note that Moore may have written to Mary; it is addressed “To the Lady who wears a Crown and her subjects.”
The note says: “Though St. Nicholas feels unusually poor owing to the pressure of the times, he is still rich in goodwill and good humour, and hopes these trifling tokens of his regard will be received with pleasure and help to make a Merry Christmas for his worthy friends at Constable Hall.”
The Christmas spirit
Moore’s St. Nicholas has become an enduring reminder of giving, happiness and the Christmas spirit.
“Santa Claus, prior to this, was more adult-oriented,” said Gillard, the librarian. “But here, Moore portrays Santa Claus as a jolly old elf and that has a lot of child appeal.”
Every Christmas Eve, Constable said, the family – like many across the county – would gather to read Moore’s poem.
“It was part of our family’s history,” said Constable. “Reading it was like history in the making. It covered so many people’s lives.”
About Constable Hall
Built by William Constable Jr., the third generation of the family in the United States, Constable Hall was completed in 1819 and housed the family for two more generations before being sold by John P. Constable Jr. to be renewed, preserved and opened to the public.
Constable Hall was opened by the Constable Hall Association in 1949.
Constable Hall, 5909 John St., Constableville, opens for the season in late May and closes for the season in October.