Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem

From an October 26, 2000, article in The New York Times:

Every Christmas for more than 150 years, children have hung their stockings by the chimney with care and learned to thank Clement Clarke Moore for the tradition.

Moore, a wealthy Manhattan biblical scholar, went down in history as the man who in 1823 created the American image of Santa Claus as author of the “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” it became one of the most widely read poems in the world.

But did Moore really write it? In a new study of the poem’s early history, Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College and a scholar of authorial attribution, accuses Moore of committing literary fraud. He marshals a battery of circumstantial evidence to conclude that the poem’s spirit and style are starkly at odds with the body of Moore’s other writings.

In a new book, “Author Unknown,” (Henry Holt & Company) Mr. Foster argues that “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823, closely matches the views and verse of Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman-poet of Dutch descent.

The article goes on to explain Professor Foster’s findings.

The Writer’s Almanac for today also discusses the poem and its origins.

Today is Christmas Eve, the subject of the beloved holiday poem that begins:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through 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 sugarplums danced in their heads.

The poem, now known as “The Night Before Christmas,” was first published anonymously in a small newspaper in Upstate New York in 1823, and its original title was “Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas.” It was a huge success, and it has been published in book form so many times that it now exists in more editions than any other Christmas book ever printed.

Fourteen years after its first publication, an editor attributed the poem to a wealthy professor of classical literature named Clement Clarke Moore. At first, Moore dismissed the poem as a trifle, but he eventually included it in a volume of his collected Poems (1844). A legend grew that Moore had been inspired to write the poem for his children during a sleigh ride home on Christmas Eve in 1822, and that he had based his version of Saint Nicholas on his Dutch chauffeur.

Recently, new evidence has come out that a Revolutionary War major named Henry Livingston Jr. may have been the actual author of “The Night Before Christmas.” His family has letters describing his recitation of the poem before it was originally published, and literary scholars have found many similarities between his work and “The Night Before Christmas.” He was also three quarters Dutch, and many of the details in the poem, including names of the reindeer, have Dutch origins.

But whoever wrote the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” changed the way Americans celebrate the holiday of Christmas by reinventing the character of Santa Claus. The name Santa Claus comes from Sinter Klaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. He was a bishop in Southwest Turkey in the 4th century and had a reputation for extraordinary generosity. He became known as the patron saint of children, and many European children began to celebrate St. Nicholas Eve on December 5th. On that day in Hungary, children leave boots out for St. Nicholas to fill with presents. In Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, children are visited by a man in bishop’s robes who listens to prayers and gives presents. In Holland, St. Nicholas arrives by steamboat from Spain, and travels around the country on a white horse, tossing gifts down chimneys.

“The Night Before Christmas” combined the celebrations of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas, and made children the focus of Christmas celebrations. The poem was also the first representation of Santa Claus as a magical, elf-like being who travels through the air on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.

After the publication of the poem, the ritual of gift giving became a boon to merchants, and they became Santa’s biggest fans. Stores began to launch Christmas advertising campaigns on Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving Day parades first began as Christmas shopping promotions. In 1939, the retail business community persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to set the annual date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, which ensured a four-week shopping season each year. Retailers now count on Christmas for more than 50 percent of their annual sales. In Holland, children are now visited by St. Nicholas on December 5th, and on Christmas Eve they are visited by Santa Claus, whom they call, “American Christmas Man.”