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Clement Moore Revisited
Peter Christoph
Brought to you by the website of Henry Livingston, the author of A Visit From St. Nicholas

Clement Moore Revisited

The most beloved of Dutch contributions to American folklore is certainly the St. Nicholas legend. As is usually true of folklore, the main theme has survived the transplanting but many of the peripheral details were changed. Thus Sinterklaas has become Santa Claus, the bishop's robes have been replaced by a snowsuit, the disciplinarian Swarte Piet has disappeared, the horse and wagon have been replaced by reindeer and sleigh, and the very eve of the visit has moved from the Feast of St. Nicholas to Christmas. Yet for all this the good-hearted, magical saint who brings presents to children remains essentially unchanged.

As can sometimes happen, this folk tradition was filtered through, and reshaped by, a literary work. In fact, St. Nicholas was little noted in America outside the Dutch community until the publication of Clement C. Moore's poem, An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.

Moore probably had only the vaguest notion of what the Dutch legend was about. He was of very English descent (his father was a bishop in the Episcopal Church), and he apparently had little knowledge of Dutch langauge or customs. While the language was still spoken in rural areas of New York and New Jersey, it was close to extinction in New York City, and certainly was not used among those persons of Dutch extraction who moved in Moore's social sphere. Consequently, Moore in seeking information about the Dutch representation of St. Nicholas consulted that most unreliable of sources, A History of New York by "Dietrich Knickerbocker" (Washington Irving). That book was a spoof of a great many subjects, but particularly of the Dutch in New York; it is not surprising that with this as his sourcebook Moore would have included in his poem such novelties as imagining the good saint to look very much like the chubby Dutch burghers that populate Knickerbocker's History (the immediate model was, however, "a portly rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood").1 It is important to note this because it demonstrates Moore's unfamiliarity with the lean Dutch Sinterklaas.

Samuel White Patterson in his biography of Moore points out a very significant passage in Knickerbocker's History. It is the one in which Olaf van Cortlandt has a dream:

...the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children...he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud over head...And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

Here we have all the essential elements of Moore's description of St. Nicholas (except for the reindeer and sleigh, which may have been borrowed from Norse legend, such being Odin's means of transportation when he was doling out gifts). The primary source is not Dutch tradition, but rather a dream sequence invented by Washington Irving to poke fun at the Dutch. It seems ironic that a great tradition should take its origins from such a dubious source.

We should note that Clement C. Moore was a professor of Oriental and Greek literature, that his professional reputation had been greatly enhanced by his two volume Hebrew dictionary, and that he had translated a French history into English. Certainly a scholar of his ability could have reproduced the story of Sinterklass with great fidelity to Dutch tradition had that been his intention, but his purpose was only to create a story to amuse his children. It has become part of the tradition that Moore's reluctance to acknowledge his authorship of the poem after its unauthorized publication was due to his fear that his scholarly reputation would suffer if he were known to be the composer of amusements for children. This explanation is certainly plausible, and has therefore stood unquestioned. There is the possibility, however, that a linguistic slip within the poem itself was the real embarrassment.

In order to pursue that idea we must first take a look at one of Moore's inventions, the names of the eight reindeer:

"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!"
This intricate little group includes two instances of alliteration (Dasher/Dancer and Comet/Cupid), as well as an internal rhyme (Dancer/Prancer). The entire poem is beautifully structured, hardly a jingle dashed off in a few moments, and the rhyme is perfect throughout except for the names of the two reindeer, Vixen and Blitzen. It certainly seems curious that at the one place in the poem where Moore could have used any two rhyming words, he would fail to produce a matched pair. It must be wondered whether one of these names might originally have been something else, and if so, when it might have been changed.

In response to the second part of the question, we must take note of the fact that the earliest version we have of the poem is at fourth hand: the printed version in the Troy Sentinel of December 23, 1823. The first version of course was the original composition, from which a copy was made by an unnamed relative of Moore, and then from that copy Harriet Butler made another copy [Christop does not seem to know that Harriet Butler WAS a cousin of Moore's] which her father (the Rev. David Butler) showed to editor Orville L. Holley, who in turn would have given it to a typesetter. Thus there were at least four persons who could have altered the poem between its creation and its publication. At any point in the several recopyings, the poem may have been altered in such a way that a false rhyme was created.

Our next task is to see if one of the two names seems in any way inappropriate, and in fact, it is the word Blitzen that is not quite right in the scheme of things. Not only does it fail to rhyme, but it is a German word paired with a Dutch word, Donder. Modern versions often correct the odd pair to become the German Donner and Blitzen, but we might consider the Dutch equivalent: Donder and Blixsem.

This does not solve our dilemma, since Bliksem is also not a true rhyme for Vixen. Thus, since the rest of the poem does not exhibit false rhyme, the possibility must be considered that what Moore originally wrote was Bliksen.

In medieval Dutch the word had been, in fact, Blixene, but by the time Moore was writing his poem, Bliksem had been in use for centuries. We must concede one of two possibiilites: either Bliksen was a dialect form in use in the Hudson Valley, or else Moore misunderstood the word when he heard it spoken. In fact, we have just such an expression used earlier upriver. Dr. Alexander Coventry of Claverack wrote in his diary on June 13, 1786, that Derrick Van de Car "is inclined to embellish his sentences with a strong exclamation in Dutch or English," and one example Coventry cites is "dunder and blixen."3 Since the model for Moore's St. Nicholas was a neighborhood Dutchman, Moore may well have heard isolated Dutch expressions being used within shouting distance of his house.

Whether blixen is dialect or simply a misunderstanding, its use would have been an embarrassment to the specialist in language and literature, reason enough for Moore to avoid being identified as the author of "'Twas the night before Christmas." However, the only evidence to support our theory is the curiously unnecessary false rhyme and the unlikely mixture of Dutch thunder with German lightning.

After all this is said and done, we must recognize that more important than how the reindeer were named or from whence the description of St. Nicholas was derived is the fact that Moore's creation was the basis from which Santa Claus evolved. The Dutch Sinterklaas had not captured the American imagination, but Moore's droll character immediately filled a mythic need of the American people. It is ironic that the poem he tried at first to disavow, and only gradually came to appreciate, has made Clement C. Moore one of our best loved writers, while those of his works which gave him his greatest satisfaction have been almost forgotten.


1 The statemen is attributed to Moore in Samuel White Patterson's The Poet of Christmas Eve, p. 11.

2 Ibid., p. 16.

3 The present location of the original diaries is unknown. The New York State Library has a manuscript made in 1889. Of course, we have no guarantee that Dr. Coventry s hearing was more reliable than Professor Moore's (we would expect the conjunction between two Dutch words to be en, not and)


Peter Christoph, a Fellow of the Society, is associated with the New York State Library in Albany.


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