Who Wrote "Twas The Night Before Christmas"?

By Henry Litchfield West

The best known Christmas poem in the English language begins . . .
 "Twas the night before Christmas, where all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
"

santa

 

 

Its history is not only romantic, but there is also a question as to its authorship. The poem was apparently first published on December 23, 1823, in the Troy, New York, "Sentinel."  It was titled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas;" occupied nearly a column in small type, and was prefaced with a sympathetic note, written by Orville L. Holley, the editor:

 

We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of music—that homely and delightful personage of parental kindness, Santa Claus, his costumes, and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the firesides 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 lassies, will accept it as a proof of our unfeigned good will towards 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, types of such of us as shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.

 

Thus the first publication of the poem is shrouded in mystery. Whether the copy was sent in anonymously or whether the editor deliberately falsified in proclaiming ignorance of its source, no one will ever know; but the fact remains that the very first sentence of this appreciative editorial comment only serves to render the solution of the problem more difficult. The poem was used un-illustrated as a carriers' address by the Troy "Sentinel" in several succeeding years and was printed in the "Morning Courier," New York City, on January 1, 1829. It was again used as an address by the Troy "Sentinel" in 1830 and apparently was not again reprinted until it appeared in a little volume entitled "Poems by Clement C. Moore, LL.D.," and published in 1844 by Bartlett and Welford, 7 Astor Place, New York City. This book contains a lengthy preface, which begins as follows:

 

My dear Children:

In compliance with your wishes, I here present you with a volume of verses written by me at different periods of my life. I have not made a selection from among my verses of such as are of any particular cast, but have given you the melancholy and the lively, the serious and the sportive, and even the trifling; such as relate solely to our domestic circle and those of which the subjects take a wider range.

. . . We are so constituted that a good honest, hearty laugh, which conceals no malice, and is excited by nothing corrupt, however ungenteel it may be, is healthful to both body and mind; and it is one of the benevolent ordinances of Providence that we are thus capable of these alternations of sorrow and trouble with mirth and gladness. Another reason why the mere trifles in this volume have not been withheld is that such things have been often found by me to afford greater pleasure than what was by myself esteemed of more worth.

 

This evidence of an appreciation of the lighter things of life is an important factor in the controversy, because Dr. Moore was a man of serious nature and without reputation as a humorist. He was born July 15, 1779. His father, Right Reverend Benjamin Moore, was the second Protestant Episcopal bishop of New York, assisted at the inauguration of President Washington, and administered communion to Alexander Hamilton when the latter was dying after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. Dr. Moore was educated for the church, became proficient in classical languages, and upon the opening of the General Theological Seminary, of which he was the founder and benefactor, served as professor of Oriental and Greek literature. The trend of his mind was distinctly sober and grave; but when it is remembered that "Alice in Wonderland" was written by a teacher of mathematics, and that "Nonsense Novels" and "The Elements of Political Science" have the same authorship, it may not seem incongruous that the writer of a merry jingle also compiled "A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language," with an explanation of every word in the Psalms. The combination of grave and gay in literature has happened more than once.

The commonly accepted story of the first publication of the poem, while lacking documentary authenticity, is explicit and plausible and has gained credence through frequent repetition. It relates that Miss Harriet Butler, eldest daughter of Reverend Dr. David Butler, rector of St. Paul's Church in Troy, while visiting Dr. Moore's family in 1822, heard the poem read, copied it into her album, and in the Christmas season of 1823 sent it to the Troy "Sentinel." It has also been printed that Dr. Moore was chagrined over the publication, "which he apparently considered quite beneath the dignity of a theological professor," but it is difficult to reconcile this statement with the fact that the poem appeared without affording the slightest clue to its author.

Up to the time of his death, July 10, 1862, Dr. Moore was evidently undisturbed as to any future question of his fame, for he made no effort to substantiate his own position. He had published the poem under his own name in 1844, twenty-one years after it had first appeared, and on March 24, 1856, he furnished a holographic copy in response to a written request, stating in his letter that "I wish the enclosed was more worthy of attention." In 1862 the New York Historical Society sent a representative to interview him. The report of this agent, published in the Bulletin of the Society under date of January, 1919, is disappointing in its lack of detail as to the origin of the poem. Dr. Moore, then eighty-three years old, did not state that he had furnished the original copy to Miss Butler but, according to the interview, explained that she had copied the poem from another copy furnished by one of Dr. Moore's female relatives. He was further quoted as saying that "a portly rubicund Dutchman, living in the neighborhood of his father's country seat, Chelsea, suggested to him the idea of making St. Nicholas the hero of the Christmas piece," which, he added, had been written forty years previously for his two children. As a matter of fact, Dr. Moore had three children in 1822. The eldest, Charity, named after her mother, was six years of age; Clement was a baby of two, and Emily was only eight months old. Only the eldest child could have had the slightest interest in hearing about St. Nicholas. The interviewer made no inquiry of Dr. Moore respecting the original draft, which, so far as known, is not now in existence.

Apparently the original manuscript is not in the custody of the Moore family, for Casimir deR. Moore, grandson of Dr. Moore, writing in answer to an inquiry, says: 

 

My grandfather, Clement C. Moore, wrote it for the enjoyment of his children and had no intention of publishing it. A connection of the family saw it while on a visit to my grandfather, copied it, and had it published anonymously in a Troy paper, I believe. There were at once several persons who claimed to be the author; and it was not until urged to do so that my grandfather acknowledged that he was the author. This I have understood from my father, uncle and aunts to be the facts in the case. I think my grandfather’s reputation stands sufficiently high in warranting me in saying that he never could have said he was the author unless he was so in fact.  What became of the original manuscript I cannot say.

 

Although "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is universally known today, it does not seem to have acquired instant popularity. As already stated, it was occasionally used as a newspaper carriers' address, its appearance in 1830 being made memorable by a wood engraving executed by Myron King, of Troy, in which the children's patron saint and his "eight tiny reindeer" were depicted levitating over the house-tops. In 1849 Griswold published a second edition of his anthology of American poetry in which the poem was included, with credit to Dr. Moore; and a reprint also appeared in "The Cyclopaedia of American Literature," published by the Duyckincks in 1855. In 1862 it was issued in a separate volume with illustrations by F. O. C. Darley, since which time it has found a place in nearly every school reader, with annual publication as a Christmas feature in a large number of newspapers.

The doubt as to Dr. Moore's authorship has assumed definite form; and this is due to the intelligent and unremitting industry of William S. Thomas, a well-known physician of New York City.  Dr. Thomas is the great-grandson of Henry Livingston, Jr., who was born in 1748 and died in 1828, residing throughout his life at "Locust Grove" near Poughkeepsie, New York. He was a man of distinction, a student, a surveyor, a landed proprietor, a major of infantry in Montgomery's ill-fated expedition into Canada; and so much of a patriot that in his old music-book he altered "God Save the King" into "God Save the Congress."  Above all, he was a deft manipulator of rhymes; and for more than a century there has been a tradition—or, rather, a positive belief—among his descendants that he wrote the famous Christmas poem. Dr. Thomas has attempted to discover the foundation for this belief. Naturally the effort has been attended with much difficulty, owing to the length of time which has elapsed since the rhyme was written, but the mass of testimony which he has collected is worthy of consideration in the hope that eventually the question of authorship will be definitely settled. 

It must be admitted, first of all, that the evidence is purely circumstantial. There is not extant a single written document which shows that Henry Livingston himself ever laid claim to authorship, but this may be explained by the fact that he had been dead sixteen years when Dr. Moore's volume appeared. There is no doubt that his family regarded him as the author; and a succinct expression of this belief is found in the letter of Mrs. Edward Livingston Montgomery, as follows:

 

The little incident connected with the first reading of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was related to me by my grandmother, Catherine Breese, the eldest daughter of Henry Livingston. As I recollect her story there was a young lady spending the Christmas holidays with the family at Locust Grove. On Christmas morning Mr. Livingston came into the dining room, where the family and their guests were just sitting down to breakfast. He held the manuscript in his hand and said that it was a Christmas poem he had written for them. He then sat down at the table and read aloud to them "A Visit from St. Nicholas." All were delighted with the verses and the guest, in particular, was so much impressed by them that she begged Mr. Livingston to let her have a copy of the poem. He consented and made a copy in his own hand, which he gave to her. On leaving Locust Grove, when her visit came to an end, this young lady went directly to the home of Clement C. Moore, where she filled the position of governess to his children.

 

So well grounded is the faith of the Livingston family in their ancestor's authorship that as long ago as 1865-1870, when Dr. Thomas's father was teaching in Churchill's Academy at Sing Sing, New York, he had an argument with a grandson of Dr. Moore, who was among his pupils, because the latter naturally credited his grandfather with writing the poem. Again, in 1879, Mrs. Eliza Livingston Thompson wrote that "the poem was supposed and believed in our family to be father's and I well remember our astonishment when we saw it claimed by Clement C. Moore many years after my father's decease, which took place more than fifty years ago. At that time my brother, in looking over his papers, found the original in his own handwriting, with his many fugitive pieces which he had preserved." And Henry Livingston, of Babylon, Long Island, not only substantiates this statement, but again refers to the original and accounts for its disappearance as follows:

 

My father, as long ago as I can remember, claimed that his father (Henry, Jr.) was the author; that it was first read to the children at the old homestead below Poughkeepsie, when be was about eight years old, which would be about 1804 or 1805. He had the original manuscript, with many corrections, in his possession for a long time, and by him was given to his brother Edwin, and Edwin's personal effects were destroyed when his sister Susan's home was burned at Waukesha, Wisconsin, about 1847 or 1848.

 

There are, of course, some discrepancies in these recorded recollections. If the poem was first read in 1804 or 1805, it could not have been in the presence of the governess of Dr. Moore's children, for Dr. Moore at that time was only twenty-five or twenty-six years old and unmarried. A reconciliation of these conflicting statements is suggested by Gertrude Fonda Thomas, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a granddaughter of Henry Livingston. She says that the governess was connected with Mr. Livingston's family. Another factor in the case is Eliza Clement Brewer, who lived at "Russ Plaets," adjoining "Locust Grove," and who married Charles Livingston, son of Henry Livingston. Her granddaughter, Mrs. Rudolph Denig, wife of a retired commodore of the navy, states that her grandmother told her that in 1808, while visiting at the Livingston home, she heard Mr. Livingston recite the poem as his own. When Charles, who had been West, returned in 1826 to marry Miss Brewer, he carried back with him a newspaper in which the poem had been printed and kept it in his desk for many years. In view of the possibility that this newspaper was the Poughkeepsie publication to which Mr. Livingston contributed, a search has been made of the now incomplete files, but thus far without success; and it is probable that the newspaper was the Troy "Sentinel." The fact that he had the paper and carefully preserved it is a matter of family history.

All these threads of family tradition are tied together with what might be called internal corroboration. Major Livingston left a manuscript volume of poems, many of which were printed in a Poughkeepsie paper and in other publications. The fact that they were all printed anonymously or under the pseudonym "R” is alleged to account for his failure to publicly claim the authorship of the now famous poem. An examination of the forty-five productions included in this collection shows that nineteen are the same meter as the poem in controversy, while in Dr. Moore's volume all of the thirty-three poems are iambic, with the exception of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and "The Pig and the Rooster." The latter, beginning:

 

On a warm sunny day in the midst of July,
A lazy young pig lay stretched out in his sty . . .

 

is distinctly inferior in theme and treatment to the Christmas effort. Major Livingston evidently loved the anapestic meter, which Edward Everett says “is better adapted than any other measure to lively and spirited subjects." In this connection there should be mentioned three of his poems, one a letter in rhyme to his brother Beekman, which begins thus:

 

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 baullancy cap on,
Our very good cousin, Elizabeth Tappan;
A tighter young seamstress you'd ne'er wish to see,
And she, (blessings on her) is sewing for me.

 

And this conclusion of a carriers' address, written in 1787:

 

And now the end of all this clatter
Is but a small and trifling matter;
A puny sixpence or a shilling
From willing souls to souls as willing.

 

And the tribute which he paid to Nancy Crooke, who was a belle in Poughkeepsie, where her name is still a treasured memory, and which concluded as follows:

 

If a pin or a handkerchief happen to fall,
To seize on the prize fills with uproar the hall;
Such pulling and hauling and shoving and pushing,
As rivals the racket of "Key and the cushion";
And happy—thrice happy!  too happy!  the swain
Who can replace the pin or bandanna again.

 

These are, to say the least, in the style of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." A further examination of Livingston's versifications discloses his delight in the use of such rhymes as "clatter" and "matter," "belly" and "jelly," "elf" and "self;" all of which are to be found in "St. Nicholas." He was fond of repetitive phrases, such as "to the top of the porch, to the top of the wall."  He invariably used the word mamma, when referring to his wife, while the adverbial use of the word all and the odd usage of gave, occurring frequently both in his verses and the Christmas poem, are cited as additional evidence in his favor. Then, further, he was fond of the idea of levitation, while tininess frequently appealed to him. In one of his poems he describes Oberon as riding in a tiny royal coach made of a nutshell drawn by "green katydids." And, finally, he repeatedly wove into his lines some references to articles of clothing — shoes, soft "shammy" gloves, ruffles, wristbands, new shirts, cravats, and even "chamezes"—just as in "St. Nicholas" there is a description of "mamma in her 'kerchief and I in my cap." Surely if Livingston did not write "A Visit from St. Nicholas" he wrote much that was cast in the same mold.

And even if this is all that can be said, it is enough to excite curiosity, to say the least. It recalls the famous observation of Martin Hewitt, that "two trivialities, pointing in the same direction, become at once, by their mere agreement, no trivialities at all." Perhaps this idea was in the mind of Benson J. Lossing, the historian, when he wrote to one of Livingston's descendants as long ago as 1886, that "the circumstantial evidence that your great-grandfather wrote 'A Visit from St. Nicholas’ seems as conclusive as that which has taken innocent men to the gallows."

The circle in which the question has been discussed has been restricted because of the previous unwillingness of Mr. Livingston's family to allow publicity for a belief which has been cherished by them for a century. The work which has been undertaken, and which is here only partially recorded, is, of course, a labor of love; and it has been prosecuted with full appreciation of the difficulty in overturning an apparently established fact. Dr. Moore's authorship, resting upon the inclusion of the poem in his published volume, has stood practically unchallenged; and the burden of disproving the claim of a man of his high attainments and unblemished character, is not a light one. From its literary side, the problem is not without interest; but, in a broader sense, the result is immaterial. No matter who wrote it, the poem has been a joy for generations; and it will continue to live as long as the human heart is touched with the spirit of Christmastide.

[First published in 1920]

 

 

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