'Tis the month before Christmas, and in the museum,

Hang pictures of Santa for visitors to see 'em.

Upon one famous poem are the pictures dependent,

Tho' a question remains about who really penned it.

Just in time for the holidays, a new exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum celebrates one of America's best-loved literary treasures: "A Visit From St. Nicholas," aka "The Night Before Christmas."

The exhibit, on display through Jan. 8, features works of Thomas Nast, N.C. Wyeth, Everett Shinn and Jessie Willcox Smith. They include paintings, drawings, illustrated books and postcards from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the exhibit, Santa Claus is variously portrayed as a plump, pipe-smoking jolly man of imposing stature, or as a mischievous elfin character. His suit might be brown, green or red, and the toys he carries might be stuffed in a bag or a basket.

In the woodcut prints of Theodore C. Boyd, who illustrated the first book version of the famous Christmas poem in 1848, Santa is a diminutive, debonair figure in knee breeches, buckled shoes and fur hat.

"Santa Claus at the Chimney," circa 1851-54, by Robert W. Weir, is considered to be the earliest American painting of Santa Claus based on the poem. It shows a spry, ornery gnome leaving behind an overturned footstool, a broken clay pipe and a half-peeled orange as he snaps his fingers and touches his nose to ascend the chimney. On his back is a basket of toys, along with a bunch of switches to stuff in the stockings of children who have been more naughty than nice -- including one unfortunate inhabitant of the home he has just visited.

"He's definitely not your typical Santa Claus figure," says exhibit curator Lee Wierenga. "He's the antithesis of Santa Claus."

Weir's interpretation contrasts markedly with a 1942 watercolor by Shinn showing a cherubic, red-cheeked Santa, and with Nast's engraving of "Merry Old Santa Claus," which appeared in the 1881 New Year's Day edition of Harper's Weekly.

"His eyes are glowing with energy and good humor," says Wierenga, who credits the iconic red, white-trimmed suit that remains synonymous with Santa Claus to Nast's response to a children's book publisher who requested illustrations in color.

In Wyeth's oil painting "Old Kris," the cover illustration for the 1925 Christmas issue of Country Gentleman, Santa is bathed mysteriously in light and shadow, looking off to the side and holding up a single index finger, as if warning a sleepy-eyed witness who suddenly appeared in the room to keep his confidence.

The exhibit features several line drawings and brilliantly colored illustrations by W.W. Denslow, a cartoonist and designer best known for his illustrations of L. Frank Baum's "Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

"He can capture so much emotion with the stroke of his pen," Wierenga says. "You look at one line and it almost vibrates off the page."

The wide variety of artistic interpretations of "The Night Before Christmas" seems only fitting, given the continuing controversy over who actually wrote it.

For more than 150 years, Clement C. Moore, a classics professor at New York City's General Theological Seminary, was credited with writing the poem. It was first published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel.

Allegedly inspired by a sleigh ride to get a holiday turkey, Moore reportedly dashed off the poem and read it to his children on Christmas Eve 1822. A friend or relative gave the poem to the newspaper a year later, but Moore didn't claim ownership until 1844.

"He wished that people would remember him for his scholarly works and not for what he always considered to be one of his more frivolous attempts," says Nancy Marshall, author of a bibliography of the poem.

Moore's reluctance to claim authorship, and the fact that the poem stands in contrast to the serious tone of his other writings, are used as evidence by those who believe the author was Maj. Henry Livingston Jr., a retired soldier and judge from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

While Livingston never claimed to be the author, his descendants alleged he read it to his children as early as 1808.

Mary Van Deusen of Wrentham, Mass., a Livingston descendant, stumbled upon the controversy while researching her family tree and gradually came to the conclusion that Livingston, not Moore, was the author.

"I had questions when I first started, because it just seemed preposterous," recalls Van Deusen, who acknowledges that with no extant original manuscript from either man, "no one will know with absolute certainty."

"My goal is to get everybody to make up their own mind," she says. "All they have to do is read the books of both poets and they'll come to their own decisions."

Van Deusen enlisted the help of Don Foster, a literary sleuth who identified political writer Joe Klein as the anonymous author of "Primary Colors," a 1992 fictionalized bestseller about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.

After studying the writing styles of both men and scrutinizing various versions of the poem, Foster concluded Livingston was the likely author.

"If it were a capital offense to have written this poem, I wouldn't want to send either man to the gallows," he says. "I don't think the evidence is conclusive either way."

Whoever wrote it, the poem was instrumental in persuading Americans to embrace the Christmas holiday and replace the somewhat stern St. Nicholas with the idea of a benevolent, fun-loving Santa Claus sliding down the chimney with a bag of goodies.

"Even though no one is 100 percent sure who the author is," Wierenga says, "the fact that we have the poem and it is part of our tradition is something we should be grateful for."

Santa exudes cherubic charm in Thomas Nast's 1876 illustration for "A Visit From St. Nicholas."Jessie Willcox Smith cut St. Nick down to size.A pencil illustration by Matt Tavares puts Clement C. Moore's iconic poem in a more modern context.