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The most famous, and controversial, Christmas poem

It was the morning before Christmas eve in 1823, when a poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published by an anonymous author in New York newspaper Troy Sentinel. It tells the tale of how each year, on the night before Christmas, St. Nicholas — Santa Claus — travels around the world with the help of his faithful reindeer friends to visit our homes, climb down the chimney, and place presents under the tree.

The poem became famous after its opening line — ‘Twas the night before Christmas — which a lot of people mistake for its real name. Another matter of debate is its real author.

In the 1830s, Clement Clarke Moore was identified as the poet, after a story emerged about how someone — either a housekeeper, a family member or a friend, according to different accounts — sent in the text to the newspaper for publication. Moore himself came forward as the author, by including it in a book of poems from 1844, and it has since been included in official anthologies of his work.

But soon rumours emerged about another possible author of the poem: Henry Livingston Jr. It was not Livingston himself who claimed authorship of the poem, but rather his family, who said he had been reciting those lines to them many years before they were published. Not only that, but his children said they were in possession of the original manuscript of the poem. That is until the family house burned down and made that evidence disappear.

So who done it?

Clement Clarke Moore sounds like the obvious choice. He was, after all, the only one who took credit for the poem. In 1844, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York America newspaper, in which he admitted to writing it to amuse his children, not for publication, but nonetheless claiming it as his literary property. The same year, he included it in his book “Poems.”

But even before that, others alluded to his authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Orville Holley, editor at the Troy Sentinel when the poem was published, described the author as “a native and current resident of New York City” and as “a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and a writer than many of more noisy pretensions.” Even though the poem was submitted for publication anonymously, it was done so by an acquaintance of Moore, through which the editor could have made that connection. His description matches others of Moore, who was indeed a scholar at New York’s General Theological Seminary. Not only that, but in a diary entry from 1833, one of his students referred to a figure of St. Nicholas, explaining how it matched Moore’s description of the man in his poem. And while this doesn’t prove anything, it might hint at Moore claiming authorship of the poem in one of his classes, more than ten years before doing so publicly.

Other contemporary publications also acknowledged Moore as the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas before his authorship claim. In 1837 it was included in the “New York Book of Poetry” under his name, followed by printings in several newspapers.

Moore died in 1863 and was known at the time as the father of Santa Claus all across the US.

But in 1886, Cornelia Griswold Goodrich made the first attempt at proving that Henry Livingston Jr. was the true author of A Visit from St. Nicholas. She was his great granddaughter and had collected several of his other poems to show historian Benson Lossing, who deemed them insufficient to support her argument. The family claim to Livingston’s authorship was made public again in 1899, when his grandson, Henry Livingston of Babylon LI, told his friend Simon Cooper about it, who in turn wrote to the The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Sun to let them know about the poem’s alleged true author.

The letter in the newspaper put Cornelia and Henry of Babylon in touch. In one of his letters to her, he claimed his father had told him that he remembered Livingston reciting the poem to him and his other children at home in the early 1800s. He also said his father was in possession of the original manuscript, which was destroyed when the family home burned down in 1847.

Livingston himself took no credit for the poem while he was alive, and there are no other stories by other members of his family to confirm it.

But Moore’s authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas has more recently been questioned by someone unrelated to Livingston. In his book “Author Unknown”, Professor Donald Foster uses textual analysis, along with external evidence provided by Livingston’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Mary Van Deusen, to prove Moore couldn’t have been the author and that Livingston is a much more accurate bet.

According to Foster, the poem’s style was different from anything Moore had ever written, both in terms of structure — an anapestic tetrameter — and content. Livingston’s body of work shows a broader use of anapestic tetrameter, but there are a few poems of Moore’s written in that form as well, such as The Pig & The Rooster. Yet the content of this poem and others he addressed to children, in Foster’s analysis, couldn’t have been written by the same man who wrote the Christmas poem. His themes are much more somber and dark — for example, in the poem where Moore urges his children to “look on his portrait and remember him after he lies mould’ring in the tomb.”

Foster’s textual analysis of A Visit from St. Nicholas reveals more substantial differences between the poem and the rest of Moore’s work. In the Christmas poem, “all” is used as often as an adverb and as a pronoun. After showing up as an adverb for four times, it is used five times as a pronoun — a near even proportion. In Moore’s poetry, according to Foster, “the pronouns outnumber the adverbs 10 to 1.” A Visit from St. Nicholas is, hence, much more consistent with Livingston’s other poems, where the same relation between pronouns and adverbs as in the Christmas poem can be found.

The choice of words is another important factor. The poem ends with the line “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”. At the time, wishing a “happy” Christmas was rare, as opposed to a “merry” Christmas which was commonplace in America. It’s not uncommon to find editions of the poem where “happy” has been replaced by “merry” to make it more suitable to the time. The Christmas poem has been pointed as the first time “happy Christmas” was used, yet in a letter from Livingston to his first wife, Sally Welles, written 50 years before A Visit from St. Nicholas was published, he can be found wishing her a “happy Christmas.” For Foster, this is further proof that Moore couldn’t have been the author.

Then there is Livingston’s Dutch background — his mother was Dutch — that would explain a lot of references in the poem. The most easily recognized are the names of two of the reindeer, Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning.” The pipe that St. Nicholas smokes in the poem is also part of Dutch sailors’ habit of smoking tobacco from a pipe that dates back to 1748. It is much more likely that a Dutch descendant would include Dutch customs and language in a poem than someone with no connection to them at all. Moore defendants argue that his relationship with Washington Irving explains that he could have gotten his Dutch references from Irving’s A History of New York, where he also mentions St. Nicholas smoking a pipe.

Despite there being arguments for and against both authors, none of the sides have made a strong enough claim that gives us a clear answer. Nearly 200 years later, the identity of the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas remains a mystery. But even if the mystery goes unsolved, the poem will always shape our collective imagination of what happens on Christmas Eve.

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