All Through the Summer House: The Clement C. Moore House

December 25, 2014 — That’s me in front of a house decorated with Santa’s face. Being that it’s Christmas Day, that’s not much of an oddity. Except that the photo was taken in May…in the mansion-infested city of Newport, Rhode Island.

Wait. It’s Christmas. You’ve got toys to play with. Let me cut to the Chevy Chase. This is the house where the man who wrote ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas died.

Clement C. Moore was born in 1779 in New York City and became a distinguished literature and theology professor there. He was an august man who generally did august things, but became immortal doing a December thing.

On December 23, 1823, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas—or, as it was originally known, A Visit from St. Nicholas—was anonymously published in a Troy, New York, newspaper…and just never stopped being reprinted. By 1837, Moore’s authorship was widely known. He’d written the poem for his children. He hadn’t intended on changing Christmas as we know it.

That’s right. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas isn’t just the most famous poem in the English language. It’s the text that more or less codified much of the—children, close your eyes—Santa myth as we know it today.

Apparently, before Moore’s poem caught fire the sugar plums dancing in the heads of both children and adults, our secular Christmas mythology was all over the place. Borrowing from sources as far and wide as the story of St. Nicholas to random Dutch nomenclature to Washington Irving (who doesn’t get near enough credit for the creation of the modern Christmas), Moore gave us a chimney-dropping Santa who delivers toys on Christmas Eve while being pulled through the sky by eight reindeer with names that “you know.” He also gave so many elementary school students the chance to say “breast” in school without being reprimanded.

Of course, the oddity of the poem compared to Santa circa 2014 is that Moore made Santa and his reindeer tiny and elfin. See, that’s how he could get down chimneys. But we like our Christmas bigger-than-life, so we added more jolly to our Santa’s holly and made him a big fat man with a presence so palpable it could alter planetary orbits.

Back in Rhode Island, there’s not much of a story to the house or my visit. Moore bought the Newport house as a summer home long after he became famous for the poem—according to the plaque, sometime in the 1850s. However, the place does bear the honor of being his death site, as he was staying in the home when died in 1863. He’s buried in Trinity Cemetery in Manhattan.

I’m just glad the mansion bears a festive plaque on its wall testifying to its Christmas connection. That makes it for me. The house is right downtown at 25 Catherine Street, and is a private home. Actually a few of them, as it looks like it’s been divvied up into apartments. So all you can do is go, yell out “Merry Christmas” regardless of the month, and then move on to the mansion that housed the Dark Shadows clan or the faux-remnants of Viking explorers.

Anyway, that a literary and theology professor created a poem about a deity isn’t surprising. That it changed the most wonderful time of the year, that’s just plain old Christmas magic.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.