Editor’s note: ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ is known popularly as ‘The Night Before Christmas.’
Is there anyone, young or old, who has not been touched by the classic Clement Moore poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas?’ Would it surprise you to know that Ossining has a unique connection to the famous author of the mid-1800’s? The answer may surprise you. The oldest standing house in Ossining was already a century old when Clement Moore purchased the house in 1839.
It may also surprise you to know that Clement Moore (1779-1863) was, by occupation, a professor of Greek and Oriental Languages at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Prior to penning these immortal words, he had written the two volume book ‘A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.’ Had it not been for the fact that he had children, we may never have been treated to this most cherished of Yuletide favorites. Furthermore, it will astonish you to know that, for many years, he reluctantly refused to lay authorship to this timeless Christmas classic.
We are told that Moore is believed to have composed the verses of his poem on Christmas Eve 1822 as a gift to his six children. The verses were copied by a relative, and were then given to Orville L. Holly, editor of The Troy Sentinel, who published them in the December 23, 1823 issue of the paper, without Moore’s prior knowledge or approval. Although the editor had not named the author of the poem, Moore is quoted as saying at the time: “I have a reputation as a scholar and cannot afford to risk injury to that reputation. I do not want my name attached to these lines.”
Respecting the author’s wishes, the many newspapers that published the verse in the years to follow respected the professor’s wish for anonymity. It was not until 1838 (the year before he purchased the Ossining home) that Moore finally conceded authorship. Six years later, he published a book of his poetry, and somewhat hesitantly included ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas.’
The poem was universally acclaimed as a Christmas classic by 1862, when Moore, then age 83, yielded to requests by the New York Historical Society to pen the poem in his own hand. He signed his name and dated the paper, but added the phrase “originally written many years ago.”
Although the poem was written earlier, in 1822, in the historic Chelsea section of Manhattan, and before he purchased the then century old house in 1839, the interior of Moorehaven gives today’s visitor a magical glimpse into what the famous author envisioned when he first wrote the poem. Indeed, many longtime residents of Ossining affectionately refer to Moorehaven as ‘The Christmas House.’
Clement Moore was never an Ossining resident. Shortly after purchasing the house, he turned over the title to his 21-year-old son Benjamin. He visited there often, and was totally enchanted with our community. He died in the Summer of 1863. The house remained in the family’s possession for the next one hundred years, and was once occupied by his grandson and namesake, Clement Clarke Moore (1843-1910).
The Moore family’s presence and importance in our community can be seen and heard at the Trinity Episcopal Church. Structured after the reminiscent tradition of old English cathedrals, the bell tower and clock were presented as a memorial to Benjamin Moore (the author’s son and first resident of Moorehaven) by his daughter Katherine, and given to the church, in 1895. Several members of the family are interred in Ossining’s historic Dale Cemetery.
Residents are encouraged to pause during their hectic Christmas observances, and view the vast archives of Clement Moore and his family at the Ossining Historical Society Museum. Sit and re-read this immortal holiday poem, and pause and reflect on the Ossining homeowner who gave us these words.
By William Joseph Reynolds
A recognized Presidential Historian, his articles have appeared in The Gazette and The North County News. He has lectured on Presidential History to schools, colleges, civic organizations throughout Westchester and Putnam Counties.
William served as Editor of Here At Home magazine, which covered the circulation areas of Ossining, Cortlandt, Croton, Briarcliff Manor, Verplanck, Buchanan
No stranger to community activities, William served as Chairman of the Greater Ossining Volunteer Network. He served as Secretary on the founding board of directors of the Greater Ossining Television (GO-TV). He was Village Historian for the Village of Ossining from 1997 through 2003. In his capacity as Village Historian, William was a featured contributor for the nationally published book, ‘How They Made Yesterday, History in Teaspoon Doses’ (MS Biskup publishers, 1999, West Palm, Fla). His newest featured contribution can be seen in the new book, ‘The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era,’ published by the University of Mississippi Press. William was married to his own ‘First Lady,’ Joan, for 28 years, until her sudden death in 2015.