Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863)
Biblical Scholar
Columbia College 1798

A scholar and poet, Clement Clarke Moore has long been credited with writing “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the holiday perennial more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” First published in 1823 without attribution, the poem helped change the popular American image of Santa Claus from a stern figure to a jolly one, and influenced the perception of the holiday as an occasion to present children with gifts. Trained to be a minister but never ordained, Moore wrote often for contemporary periodicals such as the New York Evening Post; he also published a number of books, including an anti-Jefferson polemic in 1804 and and 1809’s Hebrew-English Lexicon, which became a reference standard of the time. From 1821 onward he spent 30 years a literature professor at the General Theological Seminary. Moore owned considerable property in the then rural area that became Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the name of which is in fact taken from the Moore estate.

Moore was valedictorian of the Columbia College class of 1798, and his father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, later served as the College’s president from 1801 to 1811. While Columbia undergraduates have long enjoyed a reading of “Visit” as part of the annual Yule Log celebration in December, Moore’s authorship of the poem has been in doubt for some time. His claim of authorship trailed the work’s initial publication by 21 years, and there is considerable disparity between the tone and rhyme scheme of “Visit” and the bulk of Moore’s other poetry. Indeed, after extensive analysis the scholar Donald Foster concluded in 2000 that the true author was Henry Livingston, as family members had long claimed. While counterarguments are made for Moore, no less a figure than Jacques Barzun accepted Foster’s finding: In the 2003 edition of The Modern Researcher Barzun and co-author Henry Graff wrote that “Moore had lived a lie that the world accepted for almost two centuries—and the public at large will probably continue to do so. But…the record now has been set straight.”

Read more about Clement Clarke Moore in the Columbia Encyclopedia

Read about Columbia holiday traditions old and new.

Jacques Barzun, University Professor Emeritus, is profiled in the latest issue of Columbia College Today.

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