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"Twas the night before Christmas....

You remember the rest of this poem or a good part of"A Visit from Saint Nicholas." That's the official title of this poem, although it's perhaps better known by its first line. Few people know its author, however.

Clement Clarke Moore, the writer of this Christmas classic, taught Asian and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York for 27 years. If he was as engaging a teacher as he was in "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," his students must have been sitting on the edge of their seats listening to this right jolly old elf.

Moore wrote this poem for his children. He first recited it to his six children on Christmas Eve, 1822. He and his wife, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor, eventually had three more children, nine in all. They probably first heard their father's recitation of "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" on subsequent Christmas Eves. Although the poem has a decidedly secular flavor, the title and main character, Saint Nicholas, indicate its sacred nature. He entertained his children--and ultimately the rest of us--not by preaching but by telling a story. Poetry technicians are impressed that he did so in rhyming anapests.

Saint Nicholas himself cuts a dashing image in red clothing and full beard. The reindeer's names that ring out loud and clear in the poem are also forever fixed in our consciousness: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

Not even Rudolph, that red-nosed reindeer developed by Robert L. May in 1939 for the Montgomery Ward Company, could diminish this litany of characters that took form in the early part of the 19th century. Nor did the Rudolph song subsequently written by Johnny Marks in 1949 put an end to the whistling and shouting and calling these reindeer by name.

Clement Clarke Moore, the scholar, certainly knew of the Norse God of fire, Thor, a bearded old man clad in red clothes who entered homes through chimneys. Thor drove his chariot across the sky powered by two goats, Gnasher and Crasher. Sound familiar?

The author apparently didn't worry about getting credit for this poem. It was published anonymously for many years in various magazines and newspapers. Only when "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" appeared in a collection of the author's work simply titled Poems was Moore's authorship first acknowledged in print.

Other people, knowing a good thing when they heard it, tried to horn in on the authorship of this poem. One person worked hard to prove that his great granddad, Major Henry Livingston, wrote it. But scholars generally agree that Clement Clarke Moore is the author. The New York Historical Society has an 1862 copy of"A Visit From Saint Nicholas" handwritten by Clement Clarke Moore just a year before his death.

In addition to reading this poem again this Christmas season, think about writing your own Christmas story. My advice: Don't worry about the rhyming anapests.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:the author of "A Visit from Saint Nicholas"
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Previous Article:Catholic tastes.
Next Article:LETTERS.

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