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Although some say that this poem was written by Henry Livingston, Jr. (a poet known for rhymes of this sort) their claims are not entirely convincing (see here for details), so we will probably never know for certain. The traditional account of the poem's origin goes like this:

On the night before Christmas, in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nick. The next day, he read it aloud to his six children (and other family and friends) as they sat anticipating their Christmas feast. A visiting relative copied down the verses and shared them with others, including a resident of Troy, New York, who gave it to Orville Holley, editor of the local paper, The Sentinel.

Thus ends the speculative part of the story; what is undeniable fact is that the poem was published in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. It was published anonymously; and Holley gave it the title: An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas. Moore's name was not associated (in print) with the poem until 1837.

Moore was a wealthy landowner in New York City and a part-time professor of Oriental and Greek literature at New York's General Theological Seminary. He expected to be best remembered for his monumental opus: A Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, and seemed rather embarrassed to admit authorship of such a childish poem. He did include it in a book of poems he published in 1844, but even then, he did not directly attach his name to it.

Over the years, various publishers have made changes to the verses: "Merry Christmas to All" instead of the original "Happy Christmas to All" and "just settled down" instead of "just settled our brains" are two examples of such meddling. Renaming the reindeer seems a favorite pastime for editors. The first published version listed Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem — "Dunder and Blixem!" being a common expletive using the Dutch words for "thunder and lightning." When Moore included the poem in his book, he changed the final pair to "Donder and Blitzen." "Blitzen" is German for lightning, but "Donder" is a totally contrived word. This may be the best evidence that Livingston (who was Dutch) is the poem's true author. "Donder" wasn't replaced by "Donner" (the actual German word for lightning) until 1949 when "Rudolph" joined the crew.

The version below is as published by Moore in 1844.

An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap
When, out on the lawn there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick!

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall,
Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky,
So, up to the housetop the coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot:
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes, how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye, and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere they drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"