Unbeknownst to most Rhode Islanders, the beloved holiday poem that begins “Twas the night before Christmas” and that created the modern image of Santa Claus was (probably) written by one of their fellow residents: Clement Clarke Moore.
But in 1850 Moore bought a Victorian house at 25 Catherine Street in Newport and was apparently active in the community, helping to fund what eventually became Touro Park. He lived on Catherine Street until his death in 1863, and his funeral was at the city’s Trinity Church, where he owned a pew.
Newport hasn’t forgotten Moore: the annual Christmas in Newport celebrations have included stops at his home on Catherine Street and at Trinity Church, as The New York Times noted in 2006. In the 1950s and ’60s the poem was read annually before the fireplace in Moore’s former home, with U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell doing the honors in 1965.
Moore’s 14 yuletide stanzas have had a profound impact. “Not until St. Nicholas passed through the crucible of Dr. Clement Clarke Moore’s imagination did the patron saint of childhood ever ride a sleigh, or have eight tiny reindeer with bells to convey him over the rooftops,” a magazine article declared the year Moore died.
Moore isn’t our region’s only contribution to the holiday, Copley News’ James O’Hara reported in 1972:
Remove from the Christmas season the notable contributions made by New Englanders – and the list of “firsts” is a long one – and there would be little left of the joy, magic and enchantment of the universal holiday.
Well known is the fact that Louis Prang in Boston introduced the first religious Christmas cards in the United States in 1874. Also known to most everyone is the fact that the lyrics of the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were written in 1865 by Philip Brooks, Episcopal bishop of Boston and that window candles first glowed in a home on Beacon Hill.
But perhaps less well known is that Massachusetts claims the first department store Santa Claus ….
James Edgar of Brockton was the first to appear as Santa Claus in a store. He was the owner of The Boston Store, which he opened in 1878 and operated until he died shortly before World War I.
As for Clement Clarke Moore and “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the most famous arrangement of the poem is probably by the choral group Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. Here’s their 1961 recording:
• Related: Watch Executive Suite: R.I. Christmas Tree Growers Association (Dec. 3)
(art: Thomas Nast, Van Deusen/Kosinski Collection)