'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house...Handwritten and Signed Fair Copy of Clement Clarke Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"- The Only One in Private Hands! Certainly one of the best-known and best-loved poems in the history of the English language, it is known to most by its first line; the actual title is "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Written in 1822 and first published in 1823, these are magical verses that transcend mere poetry. Countless children and adults from every generation for more than 180 years have embraced this poem as well as the Christmas traditions it talks about, many of which it essentially created. Never copyrighted, it has been printed and published in every form and fashion imaginable throughout its long existence. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as has often been said, this poem is well thought of indeed. There are literally hundreds of parodies and pastiches using the phrase "'Twas the Night Before..." Just say "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" and everybody within the sound of your voice will conjure up their own favorite vision of Santa Claus driving his sleigh and reindeer out of sight, always based on this poem. Translated into dozens of languages, it is also a worldwide phenomenon. After all, what is more universal than Christmas and Santa Claus!
The author of this poem was a scholarly gentleman by the name of Clement Clarke Moore. He was born in 1779 into a prominent New York family, a family that came to America in 1609 on Henry Hudson's ship Half Moon. His father, Reverend Benjamin Moore, was the Episcopal Bishop of New York as well as the president of Columbia University. The elder Moore was also a participant in the first inauguration of George Washington and gave last rites to Alexander Hamilton after his 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. Clement Moore was a distinguished scholar in his own right, an author, an expert in several languages, and professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia. He was also a real estate owner and developer in Manhattan. Moore's family home, Chelsea, has lent its name to the Chelsea neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. He would eventually have nine children; six of whom had been born by Christmas 1822 when he wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
The origin of this poem is probably not known to most. The story goes that Clement Moore's wife, Eliza, was roasting turkeys to be given to the less fortunate parishioners from their church, and she found that one additional turkey was needed. Being a good husband and a compassionate man, he set out on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1822 to make the requested purchase. Calling for his coachman and sleigh, he set out for the market, which was then in the Bowery section of town. It was cold and snowy in Manhattan and Moore sat back and composed a poem for his children, the meter of which was probably inspired by the sleigh bells. His coachman was a bewhiskered chubby Dutchman and was likely the unwitting model for Moore's version of St. Nick. Later that evening, after dinner, he read the quickly composed poem to his family as a surprise present. Can you imagine the delight the children felt when their father recited these verses? I can picture him acting out some of the motions, "a wink of his eye and a twist of his head", "he turned with a jerk", "laying his finger aside his nose", "to his team gave a whistle" and the rest. Written only for the entertainment of his family, Moore probably put his original manuscript in a desk and forgot about it. Luckily for us, the next year, a family visitor to the Moore home by the name of Miss Harriet Butler (daughter of the Reverend David Butler of St. Paul's Church in Troy, New York) was told about it by the Moore children. She copied the poem into her albumand later gave a copy of it to the editor of the local newspaper, The Troy Sentinel where it was printed anonymously on December 23, 1823, with the editor-assigned title "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." In a preface, the editor justified its publication by writing "...there is...a spirit of cordial goodness in it, a playfulness of fancy, and a benevolent alacrity to enter into the feelings and [to] promote the simple pleasures of children, which are altogether charming." The response was overwhelmingly positive and he reprinted it every year thereafter. Soon it was being printed and reprinted in almanacs, books, and school primers. It was not until 1837 that Moore allowed his name to be published as author and, in 1844, he included it in a published collection of his poetry. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Christmas traditions this poem originated or developed are numerous. The original, historical Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived during the fourth century in Myra (modern-day Turkey). He was known for his charity, often giving gifts secretly and at night. He is the patron saint of sailors and children and his feast day of December 6 (purported to be the date of his death). A mythical figure of Sinterklaas developed in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany where gifts were given on the night before December 6. The Dutch who came to the New World brought the tradition with them, and the word Sinterklaas, often mispronounced, eventually morphed into Santa Claus. Before Clement Moore's poem became popular, St. Nicholas was depicted as a tall, thin bishop who not only delivered gifts, but also discipline. The poem gave us the image we now have of St. Nicholas as a jolly, rotund elf and established Christmas as a time of giving gifts to children. Clement Moore, inspired by Washington Irving and the Dutch traditions, gathered togetherall the elements of European and American folklore he had studied and created a fully developed version of Saint Nicholas and his Christmas Eve visit that is the basis for who we know as Santa Claus today. The stockings at the chimney, the excited children trying to sleep, the rooftop landing of the sleigh and reindeer (& their names), coming down the chimney with a bundle of toys, the white beard and round belly...these are all fondly familiar scenes of Christmastime and we have Clement Clarke Moore (and Harriet Butler) to thank for them.
The only other signed fair copies of this poem by Clement Moore are in museums, three in number. The original version written in the sleigh in 1822 has been lost to history. Later in his life, Moore would sometimes write out and sign the entire 56-line poem upon request (this is known as a "fair copy"). There are four of these known to be extant. One copy is in the Huntington Library. The New York Historical Society owns an 1862 fair copy. The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, also has an original written in Clement Moore's hand. The fourth is the only one in private hands, the one offered to the public in this very sale. Its provenance is excellent. On the last page of this four page 5" x 8" lettersheet, the original unnamed recipient has written: "I passed the month of August 1860 at Newport, where I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Moore, then in [his] 83[rd] year, who very kindly took the trouble to transcribe his verses for me and to subscribe to them his name. Dr. Moore has been for some years Emeritus Professor Oriental and Greek Literature to the Genl. Theol[ogical] Sem[inary] in N.Y. and was the son of the late Bishop Benjamin Moore of N.Y." This particular copy has an unbroken chain of ownership since the original family sold it to Goodspeed's Bookshop in Boston who, in 1932, sold it to J. Clarence McCarthy. His heirs sold it to collector Calvin Bullock whose son sold it in 1944 to a private collector. Fifty years later, this collector auctioned it at Christies and then, in 1997, the present consignor acquired it. Should this copy be in a museum also? It depends on who is the highest bidder.
Included in this lot is a wonderful collection of twenty different versions of this poem from a rare 1857 Harper's Monthly printing to a modern VHS version with Meryl Streep narrating. This would make a fabulous display along with the manuscript to show the progression of how the poem has been presented and marketed throughout the years.
There is a vastly overused phrase that has been popular for a generation that I hesitate to use because the true definition has been diluted by its use as a marketing buzzword. The phrase is "paradigm shift" and it means a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing (Wikipedia). To this writer's view, this poem accomplished just that in the way Christmas was celebrated- a true "paradigm shift." There are not many written works that can claim that distinction. To be able to own a handwritten copy of an item such as this, signed by its creator, is an amazing privilege. The lucky winning bidder will be only the eighth person to be given stewardship of this precious and priceless manuscript. They will proudly own the piece of paper but the words and the spirit of giving they convey will still belong to everyone.
Estimate: It is difficult at best to place an estimated value on such a significant historical manuscript as this. Very few items of this substance are ever offered to the general public. Documents with important historical content such as a 1776-dated John Adams manuscript sold in 1999 for $698,500 and a manuscript from his son, John Quincy Adams, sold for $611,325 just a year later. These were both significant to the historian but it's unlikely that anyone, other than just a handful of historians, could quote a single line from either one. Practically everyone can quote at least the first few lines of this poem, so which has more cultural value? Possibly a better comparison is the sale of one of five copies in private hands of the suppressed first edition of Alice in Wonderland in 1998 for $1,542,500. Note that there are five of these rare Lewis Carroll books in private hands. There is only one copy (of four extant) of Clement Moore's famous poem outside the walls of a museum (for the moment anyway)- this one.
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