Who Wrote “The Night Before Christmas”?
Clement C. Moore has long been credited with writing the once-anonymous Christmas classic. However, some scholars now believe that the real author was probably somebody else. Here’s the story.
You may not know the title, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but you know the poem. It’s the one that begins: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house . . . . “ It was an important poem in that it largely created our view of who Santa Claus is.
For centuries, Saint Nicholas had been portrayed as a stern churchman bringing whippings and punishment as often as gifts. However, in the 19th century, the image started shifting. In 1812, Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch tradition of Santa Claus “riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” In 1821, William Gilley, a New York printer, published a short poem about “Santeclaus,” who drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Finally, in 1823, the Troy (NY) Sentinel published “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” in which Santa was first depicted as a jolly fat man having eight flying reindeer and a proclivity for coming down stocking-hung chimneys with gifts.
The poem was published anonymously, and would remain so for years afterward through several reprinting. Until recently, the story that has long been accepted is that Clement Clarke Moore – a wealthy academic who dabbled in Greek and Latin, Bible studies, politics, and poetry – had written it a year earlier on Christmas Eve. According to the story, a family friend had given it to the newspaper anonymously so that the ever-so-serious Moore would be spared the embarrassment of having written such a frivolous poem. Finally, 21 years later – after the poem had been reprinted several times – Moore stepped forward to claim credit for it.
But was he taking credit for someone else’s work? According to descendants of another New York amateur poet, Moore was a fraud. They say their ancestor, Henry Livingston, a farmer and surveyor, was the true author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” According to the recollections of Livingston’s children and a neighbor, Livingston had rad the poem to them in 1808, fifteen years before it was published anonymously.
The Livingston’s have gotten some powerful support from Don Foster, an expert in analyzing the stylistic quirks that are every author’s trademark. He is best known of identifying Shakespeare as the author of an anonymous poem and outing political writer Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary Colors.
According to Foster:
- Clement Moore was a grouch whose poems were full of stern, moralistic cant. He never would’ve written such a playful, child-friendly poem. For example, a St. Nicholas poem he wrote for his own daughter threatened that her “screeches and screams, so loud every day / Were near driving me and my goodies away . . . . “
FROM SAINT NICHOLAS
(A genuine Santa Claus poem by Clement C. Moore)
What! My sweet little Sis, in bed all alone;
No light in you room! And your nursy too gone!
And you, like a good child, are quietly lying,
While some naughty ones would be fretting or crying?
Well, for this you must have something pretty, my dear;
And, I hope, you deserve a reward too next year.
But speaking of crying, I’m sorry to say
Your screeches and screams, so loud ev’ry day,
Were near driving me and my goodies away.
Good children I always give good things in plenty;
How sad to have left your stocking quite empty;
But you are beginning so nicely to spell,
And, in going to bed, behave always so well,
That, although I too oft see the tear in your eye,
I cannot resolve to pass you quite by.
I hope, when I come here again the next year,
I shall not see even the sign of a tear.
And then, if you get back your sweet pleasant looks,
And do as you’re bid, I will leave you some books,
Some toys, or perhaps what you still may like better,
And then too may write you a prettier letter.
At present, my dear, I must bid you good bye;
Now, do as you’re bid; and, remember, don’t cry.
- Moore condemned “immodest verse” without a moral that had “no other recommendations that the glow of its expressions and the tinkling of its syllables, or the wanton allurement of the ideas that it conveys.”
- Moore condemned tobacco as “opium’s treacherous aid,” yet the poem’s Santa enjoyed a pipe.
- Moore’s only original contribution, according to Foster, was to screw up the names of two reindeer. They had originally been named “Dunder and Blixem,” a common Dutch expression meaning “thunder and lightning.” Livingston spoke Dutch; Moore did not. When Clement republished the poem under his own name he changed the names to “Donder and Blitzen.”
- In 1844, Moore contacted the Troy Sentinel to ask if anybody could identify the author. He was told that the staff members who had known anything about the origins of the poem had died more than a decade earlier. Shortly after, Moore published the poem as his own in a collection of his poetry.
- Livingston, on the other hand, wrote lighthearted poems with some interesting stylistic quirks. One of them was that he often wrote in the anapestic meter, emphasizing every third syllable (“da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM”), as seen in “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” His annual Christmas poem was always written in the anapestic form. More, on the other hand, used anapestic meter in only one known poem.
- Livingston’s poems often had the unusual quirk of using all as an adverb. So does this poem, in phrases like “all through the house,” “all snug in their beds,” and “dressed all in fur.”
- At a time when most people said “Merry Christmas,” Livingston habitually used “Happy Christmas” in his writings. So does Santa in this poem.
- Livingston tended to use an extravagant number of exclamation marks. More almost never used them. The use in the roll call of reindeer is “vintage Livingston,” said Foster.
- Finally, Livingston was know for populating his poems with flying creatures, fairies, animals and people. He considered himself an expert on Lapland’s reindeer. And his Dutch heritage gave him the legend of “Sin Nikolass” with his annual visits with gifts.
(A poem example by Henry Livingston)
‘Twas summer, when softly the breezes were blowing,
And Hudson majestic so sweetly was flowing,
The groves rang with music and accents of pleasure
And nature in rapture beat time to the measure,
When Helen and Jonas, so true and so loving,
Along the green lawn were seen arm in arm moving,
Sweet daffodils, violets and roses spontaneous
Wherever they wandered sprang up instantaneous.
The ascent the lovers at length were seen climbing
Whose summit is grac’d by the temple of Hymen:
The genius presiding no sooner perceived them
But, spreading his pinions, he flew to receive them;
With kindest of greetings pronounced them well come
While holidays clangor rang loud to the welkin.