On Dec. 23, 1823, the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in upstate New York, published an anonymous little poem entitled "Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas" that changed the American view of Christmas. It was eventually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a prominent Biblical scholar, who became known as "the poet of Christmas Eve." But was he really the author? The heirs of a longtime challenger asked a literary detective to investigate. What follows is his report.
One hot summer afternoon in August 1999, I received a call from a lady named Mary Van Deusen, who identified herself as the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter ("five greats") of Maj. Henry Livingston Jr. She cheerfully explained that it was her ancestor, and not Clement Clarke Moore, who probably wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas." If I could show this was true, she said, that would be terrific. But if not, not.
Mary thought the major's poetry resembled the verse also known as "The Night Before Christmas" better than anything Moore ever wrote. Most of the major's comical and children's verses were written in anapestic tetrameter, just like "'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house . . ." ("da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM!"). To demonstrate, she broke into a lilting recitation of a 200-year-old verse-epistle of Major Henry's. I laughed when I heard it in spite of myself:
To my dear brother Beekman I sit down to write
Ten minutes past eight and a very cold night.
Not far from me sits with a vallancy cap on
Our very good cousin, Elizabeth Tappen,
A tighter young seamstress you'd ne'er wish to see
And she (blessings on her!) is sewing for me.
Still, I thought, who would challenge the credibility of Clement Clarke Moore? Moore was unimpeachable, practically a saint himself. His name by this time had appeared on millions of copies of "The Night Before Christmas." Several local historians had already written in Major Henry's defense, but the world had not listened. From a professional point of view, this was a lose-lose situation.
I told Mary I'd give it my best shot.
The generally accepted history of "The Night Before Christmas" runs like this: On Dec. 24, 1822, during his first year as professor of Biblical Learning at New York's General Theological Seminary, Clement Clarke Moore went shopping for a Christmas turkey. While riding in a one-horse open sleigh, he composed in his head the 56 lines of "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Upon arriving home, he put the poem to paper. On Christmas Day he read the poem to his family, just before eating the turkey. A visiting relative secretly copied the verse into her album, from which a copy was made by a visitor from Troy, who delivered it to the Sentinel's editor, Orville Holley, who printed it, anonymously. And the rest is history.
Or is it?
I boned up on Livingston's biography. He was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., of a Scottish-Dutch father and Dutch mother, in 1748. A surveyor and map maker by training, he was by avocation a journalist and illustrator. He contributed engravings, poems and prose satires to Poughkeepsie newspapers and New York magazines under such quirky pseudonyms as "Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo" and "Professor Zeritef Shoralow."
Much of the major's poetry was written for his 11 children and never published. One lyric from the 1780s is addressed to a young second cousin, Timmy Dwight, urging the lad to party hard on his birthday, to fill his "cormorantal belly" with hasty puddings and "charming jelly." Fun stuff, fun poetry. You can't read Maj. Henry Livingston Jr. and not love the man. His correspondence and publications are usually witty, sometimes hilarious, never sarcastic, full of love for humanity and driven by an irrepressible joie de vivre--or, to say it in Dutch, levenslust.
But it's one thing to recognize a jolly good fellow and something else to identify Livingston as the true author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas." The external evidence for his authorship depends entirely on the recollections and anecdotes of his children and grandchildren. The major's heirs have never been able to supply a handwritten copy of the poem. The family claimed to have owned a manuscript collection of the major's original poetry that included the Christmas poem, but said it was lost in a tragic house fire. The original copy of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" had gone up in a wreath of smoke.
In contrast to Henry Livingston, Clement Clarke Moore was no Santa Claus. In fact, he was something of a curmudgeon. In 1836, Washington Irving and Gulian Verplanck formed New York's St. Nicholas Society, to make merry at Christmastime with an annual banquet and to collect gifts for the poor. When they invited Moore to join, he declined. From the professor's point of view, Christmas was no time to be jolly; it was a season for repentance from sin.
Like Major Henry, Moore was a poet. But the world as represented in his poetry is a place inhabited by loud children, frivolous maids, scolding wives, more loud children, lazy mechanics, still more loud children, soft-spoken rogues, rude barflies, lewd coquettes and prostitutes, dull schoolmen, and, yes, loud children--all of whom must be scolded, the little ones with patience, and the adults, who ought to know better, with sneering sarcasm. Throughout, Moore sounds less like the scholar who invented Santa Claus than Dr. Seuss's grumpy Grinch.
In one poem from his bachelor days, Moore condemns the dancing, music, dress and cosmetics of the girls of Manhattan ("Shame! shame! heart-rending thought! deep-sinking stain! . . . "). At age 34, he reports that his own mother thought of him as a "woman hater," a scholar "who . . . could love nothing but musty black-letter books." William Bard, a friend, describes Moore's muse as "angry," "surly," "uncourtly" and "waspish."
I doubted that the professor had told the truth about his authorship of the famous Christmas poem--but you can't call a man a liar when he's not around to defend himself, not unless you're certain he deserves it. Moore, at least, had tradition on his side. It would take more than a few clever anapests by Maj. Henry Livingston Jr. to dislodge Clement Clarke Moore's name from "The Night Before Christmas."
In a criminal investigation, the perpetrator of a crime may be identified by what has been left behind--fingerprints, clothing fibers, etc. In textual analysis, the author of a document may be identified by what's been taken--vocabulary, phrasing and metaphor lifted from other writers. I searched for the Christmas poet's literary roots in two of the most popular anapestic works of the 18th century, William King's "The Toast: An Heroick Poem" (1747) and Christopher Anstey's "New Bath Guide" (1766), both of which were widely read well into the 19th century.
In "The Toast," King describes the sun god Apollo, hung over from too much drink the night before. His horses are ready to fly more rapid than eagles: ". . . so swift are the coursers, they think it mere play,/Or a breathing, to measure the globe in a day. . . ."
Anstey's "Guide" is a collection of verse epistles in which a wickedly funny narrator mocks English high society. Here's Epistle 6: "This morning, dear mother, as soon as 'twas light,/I was wak'd by a noise that astonish'd me quite,/For in Tabitha's chamber I heard such a clatter,/I could not conceive what the deuce was the matter./And, would you believe it, I went up and found her/In a blanket with two lusty fellows around her . . . ." Directly or indirectly, "The Night Before Christmas" owes some of its bounce to both "The Toast" and the "New Bath Guide."
It's not unthinkable that Moore, who thought it his bounden duty to keep close watch on the subverters of public morals, would read such stuff. But would he then imitate it when writing a Christmas poem for his own impressionable children? Probably not. In 1806, Moore condemned the "depraved taste in poetry" of those who read anapestic satire, together with every "bawd of licentiousness" who writes it.
Livingston was a religious man as well (Dutch Reformed). He, too, was a devoted and conscientious father. Would he read and imitate another poet's profane anapestic epistles? Yes. Every Christmas, and in between. Look at "Mistress Van Kleeck's Tenant's Letter," an early epistle: "My very good landlady, Mistress Van Kleeck,/(For the tears that o'erwhelm me I scarcely can speak!):/I know that I promis'd you hogs two or three--/But who knows his destiny? Certain not me!"
I found other telltale fingerprints: Take the simple word "all." Most writers use "all" as a pronoun more often than as an adverb, but the "Christmas" poet does not. He writes "all through the house" and "all snug in their beds," followed by "dressed all in fur" and "all tarnished." Against those four adverbs are five pronouns: "dash away all," "fill'd all the stockings," "all flew," "Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night." Vintage Henry: In Livingston's early verse, and in his late verse, and in his verse in between, the pronouns and adverbs are about evenly divided. In Moore's poetry, the pronouns outnumber the adverbs 10 to 1.
"A Visit From St. Nicholas" ends with the greeting, "Happy Christmas to all . . . ." Livingston's first recorded words are "A happy Christmas . . . ", the beginning of a 1773 letter to his first wife, Sally. One might guess that a "happy" Christmas in those days was as commonplace as a "merry" Christmas, but the guess would be wrong. In Literature Online--an archive of more than 260,000 works of English and American poetry, drama and prose--the first "Happy Christmas" appears in a little poem beginning, " 'Twas the night before Christmas . . . ."
Charles Fenno Hoffman, the first editor to ascribe the poem to Moore, in 1837, changed "Christmas" to "New Year." Other editors changed the last line to read "Merry Christmas . . . ," as if "Happy Christmas" were a mistake. But a "Happy Christmas!" would have sounded just fine to Livingston.
Then there's the matter of Santa's reindeer. Whenever jolly Dutch burghers were startled or angry, the oath "Dunder and Blixem!" ("Thunder and lightning!") would escape their lips--not "Donder and Blitzen." Livingston, who was three-quarters New York Dutch, would have known this. I had a hunch the 1823 text of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" would not list the reindeer names as "Donder and Blitzen." Mary Van Deusen got me a copy: "Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,/On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem." "Dunder and Blixem!" Orville Holley got it right.
The first major changes in the reindeer's names were made by Hoffman, who changed "Blixem" to "Blixen," for a perfect rhyme, and "Dunder" to "Donder." To Moore, who knew German but not Dutch, neither "Blixem" nor "Blixen" looked right. Reprinting "A Visit" in 1844 in his collected "Poems," Moore called the eighth reindeer "Blitzen." In 1856 and 1862, when he copied out the text, signed it, and gave the copies as gifts, Moore made the same telltale error, writing "Donder and Blitzen," apparently unaware that St. Nick is a Dutchman who says "Dunder!" and "Blixem!"
Moore always claimed that when "A Visit" was printed anonymously in 1823, he felt "regret and chagrin" that his trifle had come to light. So in 1837, when Hoffman for reasons lost to history put Moore's name to the poem, it must have really popped the professor's cork. But he said nothing. For the next seven years, he allowed the attribution to be reprinted without issuing a correction. In the meantime, the "Christmas piece" made him more famous--and widely beloved--than anything he had ever done, said, thought or written.
On Feb. 23, 1844, after his daughters begged him to publish his poems, especially "The Night Before Christmas," for posterity, Moore wrote to Norman Tuttle, former owner of the now-defunct Troy Sentinel, with a discreet inquiry: Could Mr. Tuttle please account for the provenance of the poem? Tuttle replied that Orville Holley had received his 1823 text from a Mrs. Sackett, wife of a Troy merchant, and did not learn until much later that the poem was Moore's.
Twenty-one years later, Livingston, Mrs. Sackett and Moore's wife were dead. Tuttle believed that Moore was the poem's author. The coast was clear. Moore published his "Poems," apologizing for having included, together with his "severe or sarcastic" verse, a few poor trifles--i.e., "A Visit From St. Nicholas."
And Henry Livingston? He died on Feb. 29, 1828, five years after "A Visit" was first published, having never publicly claimed the poem as his own. One of the last documents to have survived from his pen is a farewell poem. An old man, knowing that his days are numbered, Major Henry imagines himself on his dying day mounting up, up to the sky, "Where reigns the Eternal Source of Love."
Livingston was buried by the wife and children and friends whom he loved, beneath a grove of locust trees that he loved, beside the river that he loved. Sixteen years later, a wealthy stranger would lay claim to "A Visit." No matter. Livingston gave to his children, and neighbors and friends and readers, much that could not be taken away. He was the spirit of Christmas itself. Compared to such an extraordinary life, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" is indeed a "trifle."
Don Foster is a professor of English literature at Vassar College and the scholar who identified "Anonymous," the author of the novel "Primary Colors." This article was adapted from his recently published book, "Author Unknown" (Henry Holt and Co.).