General Seminary commissions film marking 200th anniversary of ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Dec 15, 2023

Actor Scott Bolger portrays Clement Clarke Moore, author of the beloved Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and a professor at General Seminary, in a film commissioned by the seminary to mark the poem’s 200th anniversary. Photo: General Seminary

[Episcopal News Service] The General Theological Seminary has commissioned a 15-minute film to mark the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved Christmas poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” – better known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The film will be available for viewing online on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.

Moore, a lifelong Episcopalian, was serving as a professor of oriental and Greek literature, divinity and biblical learning at General Seminary in New York City when the poem first was published in 1823.

The film, “Mr. Moore’s Gift,” tells the story of Moore’s writing of the poem through the eyes of a young girl, Maggie, and explores the past through dream sequences. It was produced by Six Half Dozen: Creative Studio and was filmed on the seminary campus during one week in September. It was written by Non Vaughan O’Hagan.

The film will preview on Dec. 19 to those attending an event at the seminary marking Moore’s induction into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, the seminary’s president, told Episcopal News Service by email that the seminary commissioned the film to celebrate not only the Christmas season but also the special nature of General’s campus. “GTS has always had a very strong sense of place,” he said. “The beauty of the movie is that we are reminded afresh how special the place is. It is a place of deep creativity, which is associated with something utterly beautiful and compelling – namely the magic of Christmas.”

Six Half Dozen was selected to make the film because it has produced short films and provided photography and other creative services for both General Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary. The two seminaries in 2022 entered into an affiliation agreement.

The cost of making the film will be covered by gifts, Nicky Burridge, the seminary’s vice president for communications, told ENS.

Adam Senior, the studio’s digital director and producer, served as the film’s director and executive producer. He told ENS by email that it was a pleasure working with the seminary to produce the movie. “The goal for myself and as a studio was to create something that elevated the seminary yet was also relatable to a wider audience, something that my children would enjoy. I feel like we’ve achieved that and have created something rather magical.”

Skye Sconiers, playing Maggie, watches Scott Bolger portrays Clement Moore during a film about the writing of Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Photo: General Seminary

Moore reportedly wrote and recited the poem in 1822 as a Christmas gift to his six children. It was published anonymously in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823, and in 1837 he was identified publicly as the author in “The New-York Book of Poetry.” Moore included the now-famous work in his own book of poems in 1844.

Moore’s authorship of the poem was questioned when a daughter of Poughkeepsie farmer Henry Livingston said her father was the true author, believing him to have written the work in 1808. Livingston, who died in 1828, never claimed authorship for himself, and the daughter’s declaration took place years after the poem was first published. Debate over the authorship has continued into the 21st century.

Beyond his employment as a seminary professor, the connection between Moore and The Episcopal Church runs deep. Moore was born and later lived with his own family on an estate known as Chelsea that belonged to his mother. He inherited the property after her death, and in 1819 he gave a portion of it as the site of an Episcopal seminary that had been authorized by General Convention in 1817 – General Seminary. His father, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Moore, had served as assistant rector and then rector of Trinity Church Wall Street in New York before becoming bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New York from 1801 to 1815. He then was the diocese’s second bishop until his death in 1816.

When Clement Moore died in 1863, he was buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery located in Hamilton Heights, uptown from Trinity Church and its churchyard in lower Manhattan, as were his wife, Catherine, and three of their children.

As it has for the past century, Church of the Intercession, which is located next to the cemetery, will host its annual reading of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” on Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. Eastern, which will be followed by a procession to Moore’s grave for a brief memorial. Vincent Boudreau, president of The City College of New York, will read the poem.

The poem’s ongoing impact

According to former General Seminary librarian Melissa Chim, Moore’s poem helped create the modern American version of Santa Claus, “’dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,’ with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, a snow white beard and a round belly.” Chim noted that this Santa was “a jolly elf bringing joy with his reindeer-led sleigh to both children and adults.”

One of the first illustrated copies of the poem was printed in 1830 in the Troy Sentinel. It included an engraving by Myron B. King that showed Santa with a sleigh and eight reindeer on a roof. Thomas Nast, a Civil War-era cartoonist with the magazine Harper’s Weekly, created his enduring image of Santa Claus in 1883 that was inspired by the poem’s depiction of St. Nicholas.

Some of this year’s White House Christmas decorations incorporate nods to Moore’s poem in honor of its 200th anniversary. A variety of editions of the poem loaned by the Library of Congress are displayed in cases for visitors to see. Santa and his team of reindeer fly across the ceiling of the Grand Foyer and are featured flying above the large gingerbread White House in the State Dining Room.

No original manuscript of the poem exists, but Moore later did produce some hand-written versions of it. One of these signed copies sold for $280,000 in 2006. At that time, three known existing copies in Moore’s handwriting were in museum collections.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.