“’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Columbia

Did you know that in 1822 Clement Clark Moore, Columbia College Class of 1798 and a most loyal Columbian, created the iconic Santa Claus with a beard “as white as the snow,” “a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly” and a bundle of toys “flung on his back”?

Clement Clarke Moore and one his daughters playing chess, circa 1855. Photograph by Nathaniel Fish Moore. Nathaniel Fish Moore photographs, University Archives.

The story goes that Moore promised his children a holiday poem which he “scribbled” on Christmas Eve in 1822. A family friend, Harriet Butler, heard the poem during a visit to the Moores and asked permission to copy it down. “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared in her local newspaper, the Troy Sentinel, without an author’s name on December 23, 1823. Some argue that it was published without Moore’s consent; others, that since Moore was a serious scholar of Hebrew and Greek and had published his two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language in 1809 (the first Hebrew lexicon published in the U.S.), he did not want his name to be attached to this light verse. The poem became instantly popular and it was finally published with its rightful author’s name in Charles Fenno Hoffman’s New-York Book of Poetry in 1837 and in Moore’s own Poems in 1844.

Clement Clarke Moore was more than a scholar and a poet, he was also a Columbian through and through. He was the son of Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore, a graduate of King’s College, Class of 1768, who served as president of both King’s College and Columbia College. In May 1775, as the outbreak of hostilities between the British and the colonists forced President Myles Cooper to flee New York City, Benjamin Moore was appointed president pro tempore of King’s College. He later served a second term as president of the re-named Columbia College from 1801 to 1811.

 Bishop Moore trained his one and only son before enrolling him at Columbia College. As a nineteen-year-old, Clement graduated in 1789 (as part of a class of 18 students) and, at commencement, he delivered the valedictory speech “Gratitude.” He served as a Trustee of the College (1813-1857) and, as Clerk of the Board (1815-1850), he wrote the complete minutes of the board in his very clear and legible handwriting. In 1825, at an anniversary celebration of the College’s first commencement, Clement delivered an address before alumni which now serves as the first history of the College from its foundation in 1754. Father and son also received honorary degrees from the College—Benjamin Moore in 1789 and Clement Clark Moore in 1829. The Moore family includes even more Columbians: Clement’s uncle was chair of the Board of Trustees, two of his cousins were appointed to the faculty, and one of them was Nathaniel Fish Moore, who was an alumnus, faculty member, college librarian, college president, and trustee. Even two of Clement’s own sons attended Columbia: Clement (CC 1842) and William Taylor (CC 1844).

Professor Dwight Miner at the Yule Log ceremony, 1964. Scan #1014. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Fittingly, this holiday poem by a most Columbian author became part of a most Columbia tradition in 1954: the Yule Log ceremony. From 1964 to 1977, History Professor Dwight Miner (CC 1926, PhD 1940) used to tell the students about this devoted Columbian before his annual recitation of the famous poem. And every year, he would close his remarks with the bold claim: “If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you don’t believe in Columbia!”

(For additional photographs by Nathaniel Fish Moore, including some of the Moore home “Chelsea,” please visit the Nathaniel Fish Moore photograph exhibition.)