‘Twas the Night:’ Clement C. Moore’s American Christmas Classic Is Celebrating 200 Years

The word “iconic” is used loosely at times, but the Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” certainly speaks volumes about the title.

In Springfield, too, Johnson’s Books has served literature for more than a century, leaving memories that live on today.

These two very different but interconnected worlds will come together this week as Pamela McColl, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, who wrote a book about Clement Clarkmore’s poems, will open Friday at 11 a.m. pm to 2 pm

The title of the book is “Twas the Night: The Art and History of the Classic Christmas Poem.”

On Wednesday, McColl met with Clifton “Chip” Johnson, a fourth-generation member of a family whose bookstore has been the center of Main Street for more than 100 years. Their shared appreciation for history and literature bonded instantly as McColl explained why Moore’s poem, written in 1823 and approaching its 200th birthday, meant to her and millions of people around the world major.

In a time when literature, poetry, and art were still considered the elite of Europe, the poem has many characteristics and is a very American creation.

“It is the most famous, recited, published, illustrated and collected poem in the history of the English language,” McColl said. She spent ten years gathering information about the history of the work, its author and the era in which he lived.

“It was first published in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on December 23, 1823, and was immediately popular,” she explains. “During the Civil War, both sides recited it, both sides claimed Santa Claus as their own, and it grew out of the golden age of illustration from the 1880s to the 1920s.”

Above all, McColl said, the poem speaks of the kindness of people.

“(Cartoonist) Thomas Nast brought naughtiness and goodness to Christmas. Clement C. Moore took it out,” says the 64-year-old writer. Says she calls this passion her retirement plan. “The poem has no fear. It’s a spiritual message as well as a secular one, and it speaks of hope,” she said.

The poem was written in New York at a time when the legend of St. Nick was in vogue and the mystery of the modern Santa was taking shape. But, McColl said, the story really begins in the third century AD, with Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop known for his generosity in the Roman Empire.

For Johnson, the visit with McColl was an opportunity to relive special memories of the family’s bookstore, which opened in 1893 and hosted a host of notables, including Springfield native Theodore Seuss Gay Theodor Seuss Geisel, the legendary Dr. Seuss signed the bookstore’s guest book in 1937. A copy of the guest book still exists, but the original, updated over the decades, has disappeared.

Clifton “Chip” Johnson, fourth generation owner of the former Johnson’s bookstore, is written by Pamela McColl, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / Republican)

“Someone has it,” said Johnson, 71, “but we don’t know who.”

What hasn’t gone away are the special memories of Christmas, which Johnson’s treats with tradition and splendor. Countless adults from western Massachusetts still remember Santa Claus in the bookstore, sitting on a big green chair, handing out precious gold coins to the little children who sat on his lap.

“They’re not real gold. They’re brass. I can’t imagine how much my family spent on these coins,” said Johnson, who still has some of them.

“We also had two high-quality Santa suits. Our Santas were older retired gentlemen who had to learn the script. They were also trained to watch the parents when the kids asked for Christmas presents,” he recalls. “Our Santa will tell kids that you won’t necessarily get what you want, but you’ll get something really nice – unless the parent nods and the child will receive it.”

Given McColl’s interest in finding and collecting old manuscripts, her interest in Johnson’s is understandable. Clement Moore died in 1863, less than 25 years before photography was in its infancy, and McColl discovered the only known photograph of the poet in the Columbia University archives , taken in the 1850s.

She was as fascinated by Moore’s life as he was by his famous work, originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” A scion of one of the wealthiest families in America, Moore “never made a dime off the poem,” McColl said.

Author Pamela McColl

Clement Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas”. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

But he was polyglot, multi-instrumental, introduced opera to New York and was the son of the bishop who performed the last rites for founding father Alexander Hamilton.

“The story of how (Moore) wrote the poem is that he went to pick up a turkey and was struck by the magic of the season. He wrote it (immediately) and went home and told his kids,” McColl said.

Did it really happen like that? No one can really say for sure.

“His home in Chelsea[a Manhattan neighborhood where the Moores own a lot of property]was torn down and thrown into the Hudson. There’s no Clement C. Moore museum, no statues, and I think that’s really unfortunate,” McColl said . “It is said that there were two tables where he wrote the poem, but there is nothing about the tables in the story.”

Whether or not the story is true, Moore is widely credited as the author, but even that is disputed. Henry B. Livingston died in 1828, and his family claims it was his work. However, they did not make their claims public until around 1900.

The poem was originally published anonymously, and the Livingston family was unaware of Moore’s role until years after it was written. McColl sees no conclusive evidence that Moore was the author. Most literary historians support his view.

Memories of Johnson’s bookstore came back in the news earlier this year when Chip’s father, Charles Johnson, died at the age of 93. He recalls that when Eastfield Mall was first conceptualized in the 1950s and opened in 1967, his family was asked to make Johnson Books the anchor store.

Johnson's Bookstore, Springfield

The storefront of Johnson Books on Springfield Avenue in the early 1940s.

Johnson said his father devoted himself to downtown, and the store flourished in the years since. Then came mall shopping and online services, and “by the 1980s and ’90s, downtown wasn’t about retail,” Johnson said. On January 5, 1998, the store closed permanently.

McColl said independent bookstores like Johnson’s could be making a comeback. Whether it happened or not, she said interest in the famous poem will never wane.

“I gave a lecture at the Mark Twain House in Hartford and I was amazed how many people came with copies of the poem. They kept it from childhood and read it to their children and grandchildren Listen,” she said. “By the end of the 19th century, Christmas customs became popular in this country, and so did this poem. It is kind and virtuous, and is still loved.”

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