Twas the night before Christmas

Dec 24, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt loved Christmas. While he can’t claim any particular influence over the holiday, it is interesting to note that our celebration today is greatly influenced by Dutch traditions which would have been handed down by his ancestors.

In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was observed very differently than we celebrate it now. Christmas was a quiet religious holiday marked by private family traditions brought from the old world.

The change in the celebration of Christmas began with the publication of Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History of New York, in which he described Sancte Claus, whom Irving portrayed as a jolly Dutchman. Sancte Claus was based on St. Nicholas, the gift-giving saint from Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox tradition whose feast was celebrated on December 6.

A decade later, the image of the jolly Dutchman was picked up by Clement Clarke Moore* who wrote the now iconic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” We know the story by its opening line, “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

A visit from St. Nicholas

A visit from St. Nicholas, 1862. From the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

Moore changed a few of the details from Irving’s version of St. Nicholas. For one thing, he had St. Nicholas appear on December 24 rather than December 6. Christmas Day had been problematic since the Reformation, when Protestants asserted that December 25 was an arbitrary festival invented by the Roman Catholic Church to appease pagan converts. For this reason, Christmas had not been emphasized in the United States where Protestants and Catholics co-existed. By making St. Nicholas visit the night before Christmas, Moore neatly sidestepped the question.

Moore also invented eight flying reindeer who pulled the sleigh, even giving them each names. It is interesting that he replaced horses with reindeer, particularly flying reindeer. (However, the fact that the reindeer can fly explains how they can get St. Nicholas up on the roof, from where he can slide down the chimney!)

Moore eliminated another part of the earlier St. Nicholas stories. Some earlier versions included a darker helpmate who slid down the chimney to deliver the toys. This helper also carried a stick with which to punish the children who misbehaved while giving gifts to good children. Although Moore took this helper out of the story, a remnant of the legend lives on today in the idea of Santa “checking the list twice” to make sure he delivers gifts to only good girls and boys.

The poem was immediately popular with Americans, who embraced this version of St. Nicholas as though they had always been waiting for it. In many ways, Clement Clarke Moore's version of St. Nicholas comes from Dutch legends. Interestingly, the name we use for the gift-giving character today also originates in Dutch legends, where St. Nicholas was called Sinterklaas. The term was difficult for Americans to pronounce, and eventually became Santa Claus.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

*The poem, written for Moore’s children, was published anonymously in 1822, sparking controversy regarding the validity of Moore’s later claim to authorship.


Gulevich, Tanya and Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning. Encyclopedia of Christmas: nearly 200 alphabetically arranged entries covering all aspects of Christmas, including folk customs, religious observances, history, legends, symbols, and related days from Europe, America, and around the world. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2000.

Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York to 1898. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Posted by Keri Youngstrand on Dec 24, 2012 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)  |  Share this post

Terry Brown said,

With a nod to Thomas Nast whose portrayal of Santa Claus in a version of "VFSN" and spreads in harper's weekly during the Civil War codified the dutch, german, Father Christmas (UK), Pere Noel (France) depictions into the Santa Claus we know today.

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