Cover of an 1888 version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Exhibit: Revisiting "A Visit from St. Nicholas"

December 2015

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...

But who created those stirring words to the start of what have been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American"? First published anonymously in a Troy newspaper in 1823, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has long been credited to Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy New York City language professor and Bible scholar. But currently there is a growing belief that it may have actually been written by Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a Dutch land surveyor and "gentleman-farmer" from Poughkeepsie, NY.

The New York State Library’s December exhibit showcases the cherished Christmas classic that has become a local literary whodunit with a display of numerous editions of the poem itself, as well as other materials that address this intriguing controversy.

Background

left display case

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "’Twas the Night Before Christmas") was originally published in the Troy Sentinel, on December 23, 1823. It appeared without attribution and continued to do so for the next fourteen years as it made its swift and merry way, like Santa's sleigh, all around the world.

In New-York Book of Poetry, in 1837, Charles Fenno Hoffman identified his friend Clement Moore as the author of this now widely circulated and beloved holiday poem. In 1844, Moore included it in an anthology of his own, referring to it as his long-ago "trifle"—a thing he hadn't cared to acknowledge before, but would happily do so now.

Henry Livingston, who died in 1828, just five years after the poem first appeared in the Troy newspaper, never claimed authorship either. But by the turn of the century, members of the Livingston clan had begun to publicly insist that he was the one who had actually written it, citing family lore and other possible proofs.

The controversy has never been definitively settled, though it's been raised periodically over the years. In 1919, the Dutchess County Historical Society wrote: "A critical comparison of the 'Visit from St. Nicholas' with the acknowledged verses of Henry Livingston adds internal evidence supporting the correctness of the family’s position."

The case for Livingston got another boost recently when Vassar professor Don Foster, at the behest of one of Henry's descendants, genealogist Mary Van Deusen, agreed to deploy "linguistic forensics" to help resolve the matter. In Author Unknown, Foster concludes that the evidence points decisively to Henry Livingston as the poem's true progenitor.

Dunder and Blixem

"A Visit" underwent numerous edits between 1823 and 1844. Most of these involved relatively minor changes to punctuation, typography, and spelling (thro/through, sprung/sprang, peddler/pedlar, etc.). But perhaps the most telling alterations had to do with a couple of reindeer names, which morphed from "Dunder and Blixem" (Dutch for thunder and lightning) to "Donder and Blixen," and eventually to the German "Donder and Blitzen."

Items on display included:

  • New-York Book of Poetry, by Charles Fenno Hoffman, 1837
    (Call number: 811.08 N53)
  • Poems, by Clement Clarke Moore, 1844
    (Call number: 811.39 M82p)
  • Facsimile of poem from Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823 (original held in MSC Collection)
  • Year Book of the Dutchess County Historical Society, 1919
    (Call number: 974.733 D97)
  • Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, by Don Foster, 2000
    (Call number: 808.0072 F754 208-8104)

Pros and Cons

center display case

Burton E. Stevenson (Famous Single Poems and the Controversies Which Have Raged Around Them) and Samuel White Patterson (The Poet of Christmas Eve) each presented both sides of this "intellectual property" dispute early on, but ultimately sided with Moore.

Professor Stephen Nissenbaum and manuscript dealer Seth Kaller (who once owned one of the few extant copies of the poem in Clement Moore's handwriting) also argue forcefully for Moore.

In The Battle for Christmas, Nissenbaum writes extensively of the influence of John Pintard and Washington Irving on the poem, but omits mention of Livingston entirely. He does address the "Authorship of The Night Before Christmas" on his website, stating that Moore "had the means, the opportunity, and even the motive to write the poem."

Seth Kaller, in "The Moore Things Change" (New-York Journal of American History), attempts to debunk three "fallacies" in Don Foster's analysis, addressing facts, opinion, and evidence from style. He contends that Clement Moore was neither a "plagiarist" nor a "Grinch," as Foster had asserted.

And Dr. Joe Nickell (Pen, Ink, & Evidence) points out, "It is easy to fall into the trap of starting with the desired answer and working backward to the evidence, picking and choosing that which best fits. That's just what Foster does, using linguistic analysis selectively, and disregarding all evidence in favor of Moore's authorship."

Nevertheless, public opinion seems to be shifting toward Livingston as other scholars weigh in, supporting articles appear in print, and new editions of the timeless poem continue to be published—a couple of them even crediting Livingston as the author.

From The Night Before Christmas (Die Nacht vor der Grischtdaag), published in Germany, in English and Pennsylvania Dutch:

Until recently, it was believed that Clement Clarke Moore … wrote [this] in 1822 for his children. Modern research, however, has revealed that this ascription is more than doubtful and that we may owe it to a certain Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748–1828) of Poughkeepsie, New York.

Even such renowned reference works as the Britannica and Columbia encyclopedias coolly inform us: "Recent computer-aided scholarship has cast considerable doubt on Moore's authorship of the poem... In 2000 it was determined that the poem was probably the work of Henry Livingston, Jr."

Items on display included:

  • Famous Single Poems and the Controversies Which Have Raged Around Them, by Burton E. Stevenson, 1923
    (Call number: 811.09 S84)
  • The Poet of Christmas Eve: A Life of Clement Clarke Moore, 1779–1863, by Samuel White Patterson, 1956
    (Call number: 811.39 M82Ap)
  • The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, 1996
    (Call number: 394.2663 N726 97-9227)
  • New-York Journal of American History, fall 2004
    (Call number: 974.7 N5525)
  • Pen, Ink, & Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective, by Joe Nickell, 2003
    (Call number: 652.1 qN632 215-1325)
  • The Night Before Christmas (Die Nacht vor der Grischtdaag), translated by Thomas C. Zimmerman and Solomon Delong; illustrated by Thomas Nast, 2005
    (Call number: 811.2 M821 215-845)

The Trial

right dispay case

So what do you think? If you haven’t yet "settled your brains for a long winter's nap" and would like to learn more about the case of Livingston v. Moore, you can check out the material featured in this display, along with much more to be found online, including Mary Van Deusen’s website.

As the editor of the Troy Sentinel put it almost two centuries ago:

We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children—that homely, but delightful 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.

"The Trial Before Christmas" was held for the past two years at the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy, wherein all of the evidence was laid out in highly entertaining and elucidating fashion. The production will be on hiatus in 2015 while its authors work on writing a stage play.

Advertising card for a production of 'The trial Before christmas,' 2014

Items on display included:

  • Moore's Christmas Classic (from the shelves of The Bookstall), 1981
    (Call number: 012 M821 82-21525)
  • The Annotated Night Before Christmas: A Collection of Sequels, Parodies, and Imitations of Clement Moore's Immortal Ballad About Santa Claus, edited, with an introduction and notes, by Martin Gardner, 1991
    (Call number: 811.2 A615 92-13089)
  • Christmas in Early New England, 1620–1820: Puritanism, Popular Culture, and the Printed Word, by Stephen W. Nissenbaum, 1996
    (Call number: 263.915 N726 98-4184)
  • Dunder and Blixem! It's Henry Livingston, by Mary S. Van Deusen, 2001
    (Call number: 808.0072 qV243 215-851)
  • 2013 transcript of "The Trial Before Christmas" (created by Duncan Crary and Jack Casey), plus assorted ephemera, from the MSC Collection

Books on display in the smaller cases by the elevator:

black and white illustration of St. Nicholas

Santa reviewing his list

Kris Kringle illustration

  • The Night Before Christmas (A visit from St. Nicholas): With a Life of Moore by Arthur N. Hosking, 1971 reprint
    (Call number: 811.39 M82a2)
  • Moore’s St. Nicholas, illuminated by M. Ogden, 1855
    (Call number: 811.39 M82a2 1855)
  • The Night Before Christmas: Or, a Visit of St. Nicholas, 1888
    (Call number: 811.39 qM82a)
  • ’Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, pictures by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1912
    (Call number: 811.39 M82)
  • "Night Before Christmas," by William A. Bales, 1949
    (Call number: 811.39 M82ab)
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, with original cuts, designed and engraved by Boyd ("This is a Happy re-creation of the 1849 illustrated edition of which only two copies are known to exist. That from which this facsimile was reproduced remains behind locked doors in New York's Fifth Avenue Library.")
    (Call number: 811.39 M82a2 1971)
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas (to a Liberated Household): From the Original Written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore, by Judith Viorst, 1976
    (Call number: 811.54 V798 215-1337)
  • The Story of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Gerard & Patricia Del Re, 2001
    (Call number: 811.2 D364 202-5036)
  • Once Upon a Time: Illustrations from Fairytales, Fables, Primers, Pop-ups, and Other Children's Books, by Amy Weinstein, 2005
    (Call number: 741.64209 qW424 206-2029)
  • 'Twas the Night Before Christmas; Or, Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, by Anonymous, illustrated by Matt Tavares, 2006
    (Call number: 811.2 qM821 215-850)
  • The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat, 2007
    (Call number: 811.2 qM821 215-1288)
  • ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Elena Almazova and Vitaly Shvarov, 2012
    (Call number: 811.2 qM821 215-1289)
  • Scripts for several versions of "'Twas the Night before Christmas" in play format:
    • Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Comedy in One Act, by Leslie Manners, 1947
    • The Night Before Christmas: A Play for Young People, Alice E. Allen, 1906
    • The Night Before Christmas: A Play in Three Acts, William Patterson Taylor, 1910
    • 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: A One-Act Play, Lee Hendry, 1951
    • The Noël Candle: A Christmas Play in One Act, Ruth Fuller, 1956

 

Exhibit curated by Carol Reid

Last Updated: December 14, 2015