Twas The Night Before Christmas History and Trivia

atkins-bookshelf-literatureTwo literary works that have had the greatest impact on how we celebrate Christmas today are A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore. Like A Christmas Carol, Twas the Night Before Christmas has never been out of print for over 150 years. The poem endures as a cherished tradition as parents read the poem to the entertainment and delight of their children on Christmas eve as they anxiously await the magical visit of St. Nicholas.

Who Really Wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas?
Although the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was originally published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel (New York) on December 23, 1823 (under the title “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”), it was eventually attributed to Moore (1779-1863), a professor of Theology and Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York, who had written the poem a year earlier. Moore eventually included the poem in an anthology titled Poems published in 1844.

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, an aspiring poet, 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 leading expert in American historic documents, who once owned one of the four handwritten copies of the poem, 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.” Moreover, Kaller could not find any written evidence to support the Livingston claim; he writes: “By the time [Moore] included it in his own book of poems in 1844, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Four manuscripts penned by Moore… survive: in The Strong Museum, The Huntington Library, The New-York Historical Society, and one in private hands.”

Why is the Poem Twas the Night Before Christmas so Important?
The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” is significant because it directly influenced the mythology of Santa Claus in the 19th century: the red suit, the bundle of toys, the eight flying reindeer (and their names) pulling a sleigh, filling the stockings with gifts, the smoking pipe, and entering and exiting the house through the chimney. Prior to Moore’s colorful depiction, Christians were familiar with the legend of the original St. Nicholas (Saint Nicholas of Myra), a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century (270-343). He was the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, brewers, unmarried people, students [take a breath here] — and a partridge in a pear tree. Depicted as a tall, slender man, St. Nicholas was known for his charity work — during the evening he would secretly bestow gifts to his parishioners. Moore was also influenced by the depiction of Santa Claus in Washington Irving’s famous work, A History of New York (also known as Knickerbocker’s History of New York) published in 1809. Irving, of course, drew from the Dutch and German lore of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus). Unlike St. Nicholas who was an actual person, Sinterklaas is a fictitious character who is based on St. Nicholas. Sinterklaas was depicted as a willowy bishop who rode a white horse. He carried a large red book that contained children’s names and whether they behaved good or bad the previous year.

From a literary and linguistic point of view, the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” is significant on two fronts: first, it is one of the best known verses composed by an American poet. Just about everyone knows the line even if they have never read the poem. Second, it is one of the most well-known uses of a clitic — a morpheme that functions like a word but is not spelled or pronounced completely: “twas” is a contraction of the two words “it was.” Because the morpheme is attached before the host word, it is known as a proclitic. Two other common proclitics are the words “c’mon” (a contraction of “come on”) and “y’all (a contraction of “you all”).

What is the Origin of the Poem Twas the Night Before Christmas?
The actual origin of the poem is a fascinating story. The staff of Heritage Auctions, which sold a handwritten and signed copy of Moore’s famous poem for $255,000 on December 9, 1994 summaries the origin of the poem in the manuscript’s listing: “Eliza [Moore’s wife], was roasting turkeys to be given to the less fortunate parishioners from their church, and she found that one additional turkey was needed. Being a good husband and a compassionate man, he set out on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1822 to make the requested purchase. Calling for his coachman and sleigh, he set out for the market, which was then in the Bowery section of town. It was cold and snowy in Manhattan and Moore sat back and composed a poem for his children, the meter of which was probably inspired by the sleigh bells… Later that evening, after dinner, he read the quickly composed poem to his family as a surprise present… Written only for the entertainment of his family, Moore probably put his original manuscript in a desk and forgot about it.. [The] next year, a family visitor to the Moore home by the name of Miss Harriet Butler (daughter of the Reverend David Butler of St. Paul’s Church in Troy, New York) was told about it by the Moore children. She copied the poem into her album and later gave a handwritten copy of it to the editor of the local newspaper, The Troy Sentinel where it was printed anonymously on December 23, 1823, with the editor-assigned title “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” The response to the poem was overwhelmingly positive and he reprinted it every year thereafter. Soon it was being printed and reprinted in almanacs, books, and school primers. It was not until 1837 that Moore allowed his name to be published as author and, in 1844, he included it in a published collection of his poetry.”

The Value of the Poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”
Heritage Auctions sold a handwritten and signed copy of Moore’s famous poem for $255,000 on December 9, 1994. The buyer was Ralph Gadiel, founder of International Resourcing Services Company (Northbrook, IL) that marketed miniature Christmas village houses (Liberty Falls Collection) from 1990 to 1998. Gadiel died of cancer in 1998 and sold his company to another businessman. The Liberty Falls Collection, never regained its popularity and success and was eventually discontinued in 2008. The poem went up for auction again through Heritage Auctions on December 20, 2006. The auction house identified the buyer as a CEO of a media company who wanted to read it to friends and business associates at his holiday party held in his Manhattan apartment.

Twas the Night Before Christmas By the Numbers
Number of lines: 56
Number of words: 500
Meter: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (anapestic meter)
Number of reindeer: 8

First written: December 24, 1822
First published in newspaper: 1823

First published in a book: 1844
Poem is first illustrated: 1863
Number of hand-written copies of poem: 4 (3 are owned by museums; one is privately owned)
Value of a hand-written copy: $280,000
Value of a first edition of Poems: $15,000
Number of editions of “The Night Before Christmas” owned by the Carnegie Mellon Hunt Library: 400
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Amazon: over 6,000
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Google: 1.86 billion
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Google Books: 5.7 million

“Account of A Visit From St. Nicholas” as originally published in the Troy Sentinel (New York), on Tuesday, December 23, 1823
The poem, under the title “Account of A From St. Nicholas,” was printed with the following introduction, most likely written by the newspaper’s editor, Oroville Holley. Careful readers may note that in line 22 of the poem, two of the reindeer are named Dunder and Blixem. There are two explanations for this mistake: either the newspaper’s typesetter misread Harriet Butler’s handwriting or perhaps Butler transcribed Moore’s poem incorrectly; Moore used the names “Donner” and “Blitzen.”

“We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children—that homely, but delightful it personification of parental kindness—Sante Claus, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the fire-sides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties; but, from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it. There is, to our apprehension, a spirit of cordial goodness in it, a playfulness of fancy, and a benevolent alacrity to enter into the feelings and promote the simple pleasures of children, which are altogether charming. We hope our little patrons, both lads and lasses, will accept it as proof of our unfeigned good will toward them —as a token of our warmest wish that they may have many a merry Christmas; that they may long retain their beautiful relish for those unbought, homebred joys, which derive their flavor from filial piety and fraternal love, and which they may be assured are the least alloyed that time can furnish them; and that they may never part with that simplicity of character, which is their own fairest ornament, and for the sake of which they have been pronounced, by authority which none can gainsay, the types of such as shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”

’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 for a long winter’s nap—
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprung 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 lustre 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 away! 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
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
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 jirk,
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:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.—

The Night After Christmas by Clement C. Moore
The Library at the General Theological Seminary in New York City owns several copies of the poem, including a first edition of Poems (1844) that is signed by Moore to the the Reverend Samuel Seabury; it reads: “To the Reverend Dr. Seabury, with the respect of his friend the author, July 1844.” The library also owns a copy of “The Night after Christmas” that is a follow-up to the original poem. The “Night after Christmas” was published anonymously after Moore’s death in 1863. The poem appears below:

Twas the night after Christmas, when all through the house
Every soul was in bed, and as still as a mouse;
Those stockings, so lately St. Nicholas’s care;
Were emptied of all that was eatable there;
The darlings had duly been tucked in their beds,
With very dull stomachs and pain in their heads;
I was dozing away in my new cotton cap,
And Fancy was rather far gone in a nap,
When out in the nursery arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my sleep, crying “What is the matter?”

I flew to each bedside, still half in a doze,
Tore open the curtains and threw off the clothes,
While the light of the taper served clearly to show
The piteous plight of those objects below;
But what to the fond father’s eyes should appear
But the little pale face of each little sick dear,
For each pet had crammed itself full as a tick,
And I knew in a moment now felt like old Nick.

Their pulses were rapid, their breathings the same;
What their stomachs rejected I’ll mention by name;
Now turkey, now stuffing, plum pudding of course,
And custards and crullers and cranberry sauce,
Before outraged nature all went to the wall;
Yes — lolypops, flapdoodle, dinner and all;
Like pellets that urchins from pop-guns let fly,
Went figs, nuts and raisins, jam, jelly and pie,
Till each error of diet was brought to my view-
To the shame of mamma, and of Santa Claus too.

I turned from the sight, to my bed room stepped back,
And brought out a phial marked “Pulv. Ipecac,”
When my Nancy exclaimed, for their sufferings shocked her,
“Don’t you think you had better, love, run for the doctor?”
I ran — and was scarcely back under my roof,
When I heard the sharp clatter of old Jalap’s hoof;
I might say that I had hardly turned myself around,
When the doctor came into the room with a bound.

He was covered with mud from his head to his foot,
And the suit he had on was his very worst suit;
He had hardly had time to put that on his back,
And he looked like a Falstaff half muddled with sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! Had the doctor got merry?
His cheeks looked like port and his breath smelt of sherry.
He hadn’t been shaved for a fortnight or so,
And his short chin wasn’t as white as the snow;
But inspecting their tongues in spite of their teeth,
And drawing his watch from his waistcoat beneath,
He felt of each pulse, saying “Each little belly
Must get rid” — here they laughed — “of the rest of that jelly.”

I gazed on each chubby, plump, sick little elf,
And groaned when he said so in spite of myself;
But a wink of his eye when he physicked our Fred,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He didn’t prescribe, but went straightway to work
And dosed all the rest; — gave his trousers a jerk,
And added directions while blowing his nose,
He buttoned his coat, from his chair he arose,
Then jumped in his gig, gave old Jalap a whistle,
And Jalap jumped off as if pricked by a thistle;
But the doctor exclaimed, ere he drove out of sight.
“They’ll be well by to-morrow; good night Jones, good night.”

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Read related posts: The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “Twas The Night Before Christmas”
Adventures in Linguistics: Clitic

Words invented by Dickens

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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