Who Really Wrote "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"?

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Call it a literary mystery - nearly 190 years after "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published in New York's Troy Sentinel, we still don't know who really wrote the classic poem.

When it first appeared in the newspaper on December 23, 1823, there was no name attached to it. It wasn't until 13 years later that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and poet, stepped forward to claim authorship and said that his housekeeper had, without his knowledge, sent the piece he wrote for his kids to the newspaper. In 1844, the poem was officially included in an anthology of Moore's work. The problem? The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., claimed their father had been reciting "A Visit From St. Nicholas" to them for 15 years before it was published. Here's the view from both sides.

The Livingston Argument
Livingston's Dutch background is a key component in this mystery. His mother was Dutch, and many references in the poem are as well. For example, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is likely where we got the popular names for Santa's reindeer - there seems to be no reference to their names prior to the poem. A couple of the names have skewed slightly over the years - instead of Donner and Blitzen, the latter two reindeer recited were called "Dunder" and "Blixem," the Dutch words for "Thunder" and "Lightning." These days the correct translation would be "donder" and "bliksem." At least that's what Google translator tells me. Henry Livingston's mother was Dutch, by the way, adding to the evidence that perhaps he was the true author.

Also piling up in the case against Moore is the fact that at least four of Livingston's children and even a neighbor girl said they remembered Henry telling them the tale of St. Nick as early as 1807. They even said they had evidence - a dated, handwritten copy of the original poem with revisions and scratch marks all throughout. Unfortunately, the house containing this gem burned down, taking the Livingston family's proof with it.

A professor from Vassar analyzed poetry by both authors and declared that there was virtually no possible way Moore could have written "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The style of the Christmas favorite was completely different - both structurally and content-wise - than anything else Moore had ever written. But the anapestic scheme used matched up with some of Livingston's work perfectly.

The Moore Argument
Aside from the obvious fact that Moore stepped forward to take credit first, one big key seems to be his relationship with Rip Van Winkle author Washington Irving.

In Irving's A History of New York, he referred to St. Nick as "riding over the tops of trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." And "when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose," he disappeared. Familiar, huh? Clement Moore being good friends with Irving might help explain some of the Dutch references in the poem - Irving was quite involved in the Dutch culture and traditions of New York state.

There's still no definitive proof for either writer, though. To this day, it's just one family's word against the other's. Clement Clarke Moore is the author who usually gets the credit for the classic, and it will likely remain that way until Livingston's descendants can prove otherwise.

December 23, 2012 - 3:22am
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