The Story Behind “Twas The Night Before Christmas”

alex atkins bookshelf booksFor almost 200 years, parents and children have been reading or reciting “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”) Although the poem was originally published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel (New York) in December of 1823, it was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Theology and Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary. The poem had been written a year earlier in 1822; the muse struck him while riding a sleigh on a snowy winter day to purchase an additional turkey for his wife who was roasting turkeys for the less fortunate. That evening, Moore read the poem to his nine children that evening who were delighted by it. The poem is notable because it directly influenced the mythology of Santa Claus: the red suit, the eight flying reindeer (and their names) pulling his sleigh, his modus operandi, the smoking pipe, and the entrance and exit through the chimney. Some of the imagery that Moore used was influenced by the work of his friend, Washington Irving, who describes St. Nicholas in his satire, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809):

“And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream – and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that selfsame wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And the shrews Van Kortlandt know him by his broad hat, his long pipe, and the resemblance which he bore of the bow of the Goede Vrouw. And he lit his pipe by the fire and he sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And the sage Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extend of country – and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all which lasted but a moment and then faded away, until the whole rolled off and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his wagon he returned over the tree tops and disappeared.” (From Book II, Chapter V)

Moore’s poem was not published with proper attribution until almost 20 years later, in 1844, when he published an anthology titled Poems. Because Moore had not taken credit for the poem much earlier, relatives of Henry Livingston, Jr. (a distant relative of Moore’s wife, Catherine), began promoting a story that Livingston had actually written “A Visit” in the early 1800s. The main evidence was their recollection (Elizabeth Clement Brewer Livingston recalled in 1848 or 1861 after reading Moore’s poem, that her father had actually written the poem in 1808); the only manuscript, they claimed, had been destroyed by fire. The claim gained traction when Don Foster, an English literature professor and expert on textual analysis (he worked on the Unabom case), examined writings by Moore and Livingston and concluded (based on the metrical scheme, phraseology, and Dutch references) that it was indeed Livingston who wrote the poem.

The evidence supporting Moore is overwhelming. First there is contemporaneous testimony from colleagues that Moore wrote the original poem (they physically handled and read a handwritten copy). Seth Kaller, a document dealer and historian, who purchased one of the surviving copies, did extensive research and disputed Foster’s analysis point by point. Kaller’s research also turned up earlier writings and poems by Moore that are consistent with the meter and phraseology of “A Visit.” Kaller concludes: “I started this investigation with a willingness to let the chips fall where they may. In the end, I can conclude that when all the “personal opinions” and “personal rhetoric” are put aside, there is not a shred of real evidence to support the Henry Livingston case. He may have been a great guy, and he may have even written a Christmas poem, long forgotten, but he didn’t write this one.”

There are four surviving hand-written copies of “A Visit.” One was written in August 1853 (now in the Strong Museum), one was written in 1856 (now in the Huntington Museum), another one was written in 1860 (purchased by the CEO of a media company on December 20, 2006 for $280,000), and the last copy was written in 1862 specifically for the New York Historical Society. Moore died in 1863 in Newport, RI.

For further reading: Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster, Henry Holt (2000)
The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler, McClelland & Stewart (2000).
Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving, Easton Press (1980).

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