Category: Holidays

Such A Clatter

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 . . . . “



(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.


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(As published in the Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823)



‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains fro a long winter’s nap –

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,

Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,

“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!

“Now dash way! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of toys – and St. Nicholas too:

And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:

He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

And he look’d 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 of 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 laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laugh’d 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 fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:

And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight –

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


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A History of Valentine’s Day

Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine’s Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance. St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.

According to one legend, Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It’s no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial — which probably occurred around 270 AD — others claim that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to ‘Christianize’ celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival. In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out and then sprinkling salt and a type of wheat called spelt throughout their interiors. Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February, February 15, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would then sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification.

The boys then sliced the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goat-hide strips. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day around 498 AD. The Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed. Later, during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of February — Valentine’s Day — should be a day for romance.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.

Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings. Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s.  The first commercial Valentine’s Day greeting cards produced in the U.S. were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as "scrap."

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.)

Approximately 85 percent of all valentines are purchased by women. In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages (written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400), and the oldest known Valentine card is on display at the British Museum.