Odds & Ends

By Gilmour, Peter | U.S. Catholic, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Odds & Ends


Gilmour, Peter, U.S. Catholic


"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. …

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