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Ode to Clement

Bow Bridge, Central Park New York

Who would know? She promises anonymity, and pleads. “You must let me have this!” Her eyes peered intently into his, both with urgency and excitement. Fear of the unknown was palpable to him, but she pressed. “I am telling you, there is nothing like this! Let yourself go a little! You work so hard, have some fun!” Arguments continued on all sides, against his better judgment. His heart emphatically said no, yet the small gathering of intimate friends continued. “It’s clever. Just release this,” his friend assured. Finally, he relented and handed over the key to an unseen future, but not just his own, that of endlessly more after him, indeed for generations to come.

Clement Clarke Moore was the wealthy son of New York’s Bishop Benjamin Moore, his father also serving as President at Columbia College. The Moores’ son graduated as valedictorian of Columbia's 1798 class, the vigorous student advancing as a professor of languages. He distinguished his career by age 30 with the publication of a two-volume Hebrew lexicon, first of its kind published in the fledgling United States, and other writings and scholarly fruits recognized throughout an educated population of New Yorkers. His family background was religious and political, and he would later donate land for the site of the theological seminary where he also taught.

In a tongue in cheek poem, he playfully put forth the concept of a team of reindeer (not previously considered and certainly not by name) as aeronautical transportation of a jolly rotund superhero of charity, to amuse children known to Clement. A friend of the family thought it inspired and too good to hide for the holidays, urging Moore to publish it. His concern that his contribution to scholarship would be overshadowed by such frivolity was not without merit. He succumbed to his friend’s arguments, giving the poem to be published anonymously as it was submitted it to the Troy Sentinel. It captured all holiday imagination. A belly like jelly and cheeks like cherries, a saint slipping into homes like a thief in the night but with goodness and keen insight into each child’s unique longings endeared all that Christmas news cycle to this unknown author’s new idea, as “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was read in every home.

Of course pressure ensued. Who was the delightful author who gave such joy in his creative word designs? Who could describe a father so, watching Saint Nicholas work in his own home? It didn’t take long for it to hit the streets that the theologian, the professor of Oriental and Greek languages, had penned that which became the annual tradition of many a family’s holiday reading. Moore later agreed to its inclusion in a volume of his poetry.

Did anyone remember who published the first Hebrew-English lexicon of the nation, or recall any other remarkable scholastic work? As time passed, knowledge of such things faded and academic advances were overshadowed. A friend noted that Clement grew dark with depression that the greetings of friends and acquaintances all surrounded the silly poem with lessening regard to his truer writings. In years to come, did anyone even know his name? Just as tides roll in and out, so do decades and centuries, and going out to sea with them are the reasons we say and do the things we do. Why do we put up trees and light candles…what do our song lyrics mean and where did the traditional recipe come from? We don’t know, and for a lot of reasons. Clement’s poetic idea was largely responsible for the concept of Santa Claus as we know it, influencing those ideas not only in the US but around the world.

Perhaps what Clement Clarke Moore greatly feared came upon him, and it’s safe to say that his Christmas tale unfortunately spread more globally than his biblical work did. My heart can’t help but think of him and the influencers around him when I hear that salute, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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