By: Gefen Selchen
The poem titled The Night Before Christmas, also known as Twas The Night Before Christmas, and A Visit from St. Nicholas, is largely known to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore. However, what you might not have known, is that not everyone believes Moore to be the true author.
The origin of this poem dates back to December 23, 1823, when the poem, which was titled A Visit from St. Nicholas at the time, was anonymously submitted and then published in the Sentinel, a newspaper in Troy, New York. The poem gained enormous popularity and is where the names for Santa’s reindeer come from.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen made their first appearance in this poem, while Rudolph was later added to the pack due to the popularity of the song Rudolph the Red Nosed-Reindeer In 1949.
In 1837, Clement Clarke Moore was credited as author of the poem for the first time when he revealed that a friend of his had sent the poem to the newspaper on his behalf back in 1823. Moore claimed that he didn’t take credit for his work at first because as a serious professor he was embarrassed by the poem and did not consider it scholarly enough. This claim alone raised some suspicion for historians since Moore only claimed authorship after the poem had gained widespread popularity.
Moore was supposedly inspired to write the poem one snowy winter day while on a shopping trip on a sleigh. Reference in the poem to the character of Saint Nicholas was inspired by the historical Saint Nicholas and a local Dutch handyman Moore knew.
However, this inspiration story did not stop the claims that Moore was not the true author.
Around 1900, relatives of Major Henry Livingston Jr., a Dutch farmer and poet, came out with the claim that Livingston, who had died just nine years after Moore claimed authorship of the poem in 1987, was the true author of The Night Before Christmas.
Unlike Moore, who held himself to a high and academic standard when it came to his written work, Livingston often published his poems anonymously, and wrote a great deal of his poetry for his family and himself. This left more room for his poetry to be lighthearted. An example of one of his poems is called Beakman which was originally a letter to his brother. It has a similar joking style to The Night Before Christmas, as well as a similar poetical structure and grammar. Donald Foster, an expert literary detective, notes that throughout Livingston’s work he repeatedly used the word “all,” a word that was used in the first line of The Night Before Christmas: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. . .”
We also know that Livingston had a Dutch background, and the original names for two of the reindeer were Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning.
Finally, all four of Livingston’s children, as well as one of their neighbours, say that they remember Livingston telling the story of A Visit from Saint Nicholas back in 1807, 16 years before the poem was published in the newspaper. They even claimed to have evidence: a dated, handwritten copy of the original poem; unfortunately, the house containing this letter burned down.
Moore on the other hand, was the first and only person to personally claim authorship of the poem (Livingston’s family claimed it for him). On top of this, it is entirely possible that Livingston’s family were mistaking The Night Before Christmas for a different, but similar Christmas poem that Livingston did actually write. They had no physical copy of the original poem and were basing their claims solely on memory after all.
Although Moore was not Dutch like Livingston was, he was friends with the author Washington Irving, who was quite involved in Dutch culture and traditions of New York State. This can explain the Dutch names for the two reindeer. In 1809 Irving published A History of New York where he referred to St. Nick a few times in ways that are similar to The Night Before Christmas. It’s possible that Irving may have been an inspiration to Moore writing The Night Before Christmas. Despite Moore having had a reputation of being a serious man, one of his poems, The Pig and the Rooster, let us know that he did have some poems with a similar playfulness to The Night Before Christmas.
Finally, one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that point to Moore being the true author, is that there is a hand-written version of the poem with an 1824 watermark in the possession of the New Brunswick Museum.
Originally it belonged to the Odell family, who were close family friends with Moore’s family. The differences in this copy to the final published copy can be attributed to this being an early iteration of the poem, and that it was most likely written down from memory by a member of the Odell family after Moore shared the poem with them.
After researching the two possible authors of the famous poem, I have concluded that Moore is most likely the true author and that Livingston’s family were confused due to a similar, but different poem that Livingston actually authored. However, nothing is for sure. Now, after reading all the evidence for both authors, who do you think wrote the now Christmas classic The Night Before Christmas?
- Ciotta, Jennifer. “Who Wrote ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas? A Literary Debate.” Literary Traveler, 1 Dec. 2017, https://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/night_before_christmas_author/.
- Conradt, Stacy. “The Mystery Behind the World’s Most Famous Christmas Poem.” Mental Floss, 8 Dec. 2016, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/26719/mystery-behind-worlds-most-famous-christmas-poem.
- Gollom, Mark. “’The matter can never be settled’: The controversy over who wrote The Night Before Christmas” CBC, 24 Dec. 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/night-before-christmas-poem-1.4446455.
- Moloney, Aisling. “How many reindeer does Santa have and what are their names?” Metro.co.uk, 5, Dec. 2017, https://metro.co.uk/2017/12/05/many-reindeer-santa-names-7134639/.
- Theano-Pudwill, Abigail. “196 years unsolved: mystery behind ‘the Night before Christmas.’” chvnradio, 23, Dec. 2019, https://chvnradio.com/articles/196-years-unsolved-mystery-behind-the-night-before-christmas.
- Wright, Julia. “Donder and Blixem?’: Mystery New Brunswick manuscript of ‘The Night Before Christmas.” CBC, 22, Dec. 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/night-before-christmas-poem-new-brunswick-1.4942635.
- Koch, Katharina. “Childhood Classics: The Night Before Christmas.” Books Tell You Why, 24, Dec. 2018, https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/bid/230031/childhood-classics-the-night-before-christmas.
- Khayat, Mustafa. “Snow Flake.” flickr, Dec. 2011, https://www.flickr.com/photos/31267273@N04/6543956369.