Can you name the real title of that famous Christmas poem?

" 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...."

The opening lines to this lighthearted poem about a late night visit from Santa Claus are as familiar to most Americans as the Star Spangled Banner.

But while it's likely you can name the supporting cast of "eight tiny reindeer," can you rattle off the poem's title with equal confidence? If you said, " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," it's a good effort, but incorrect.

The poem's official title is "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and American scholar Clement Clarke Moore penned the famous lines as a Christmas gift for his children in 1822.

A Bible scholar, Moore never intended that the poem travel outside his family circle. In fact, he feared his academic reputation would be tarnished if his colleagues learned he'd written such light fare.

Regardless, a friend sent "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to a newspaper the following year. It first appeared anonymously in the "Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel" in 1823. From there, other newspapers and magazines picked it up and it didn't take long for the poem to become a Christmastime legend.

But it wasn't until 1838 - when the poem was nearly canon in the United States - that Moore finally claimed authorship.

By then, its influence on American Christmas tradition was clear. Historians, in fact, attribute the popularization of Santa Claus as jolly and rotund to Moore's poem. And Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and friends also made their flying entrance into Christmas lore in the poem's lines.

But Moore's passion wasn't in writing fanciful stories. Born in 1779 in New York, he was the only son of Benjamin Moore, the president of Columbia University and an Episcopalian bishop.

Following his father's lead, he graduated from Columbia in 1798, earned an MA in 1801, and began a career as a Hebrew scholar.

He taught Greek and Oriental literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York from 1821 to 1850. Moore also published a number of biblical and historical studies, among them a Hebrew lexicon.

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published as an illustrated children's book for first time in 1848.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.