A Visit from St. Nicholas

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A Visit from St. Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' 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 sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

—Clement Clarke Moore

"A Visit from St. Nicholas", also known as "The Night Before Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from its first line, is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who acknowledged authorship. An argument has been made that it was actually written by Henry Livingston, Jr., a claim that has been hotly disputed.[citation needed]

The poem, which has been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American",[1] is largely responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today. Prior to the poem, American ideas about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably.

Plot[edit source | edit]

On Christmas Eve night, while his wife and children sleep, a man awakens to noises outside his house. Looking out the window, he sees St. Nicholas in an air-borne sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. After landing his sleigh on the roof, the saint enters the house through the chimney, carrying a sack of toys with him. The man watches Nicholas filling the children's Christmas stockings hanging by the fire, and laughs to himself. They share a conspiratorial moment before the saint bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, Saint Nicholas wishes everyone a "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

Literary history[edit source | edit]

Clement Clarke Moore, the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas

According to legend,[2] A Visit was composed by Moore on a snowy winter's day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas. While Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today, he borrowed other aspects such as the names of the reindeer. The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, having been sent there by a friend of Clement Clarke Moore,[1] and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. It was first attributed in print to Moore in 1837. Moore himself acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship.[3][4] Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece.[5]

Moore's conception of St. Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving's (see below), but Moore portrayed his "jolly old elf" as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year's Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants — who saw Christmas as the result of "Catholic ignorance and deception" — still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore "deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations." As a result, "New Yorkers embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives."[1]

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, editor Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen" he adopted, rather than the earlier Dutch version from 1823, "Dunder and Blixem." Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though the German word for thunder is "Donner", and the words in modern Dutch would be "Donder en Bliksem."

Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities: For example, breast in "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" is frequently bowdlerized to crest, the archaic ere in "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight" is frequently replaced with as, and "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night" is frequently rendered with the modern North American locution "'Merry Christmas'" and with "goodnight" as a single word.

Original copies[edit source | edit]

'Twas the night before Christmas (credit: New-York Historical Society)

Four hand-written copies of the poem are known to exist, and three are in museums. The fourth copy, written out and signed by Clement Clarke Moore as a gift to a friend in 1860, was sold by one private collector to another in December 2006. According to Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, which brokered the private sale, it was purchased for $280,000 by an unnamed "chief executive officer of a media company" who resides in Manhattan, New York City.[6]

Authorship controversy[edit source | edit]

Some contend that Henry Livingston, Jr., not Moore, was the author of the poem

Moore's connection with the poem has been questioned by Professor Donald Foster,[7] who used textual content analysis and external evidence to argue that Moore could not have been the author.[8] Foster believes that Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, should be considered the chief candidate for authorship, a view long espoused by the Livingston family. Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife.[8] Foster's claim, however, has been countered by document dealer and historian Seth Kaller, who once owned one of Moore's original manuscripts of the poem. Kaller has offered a point-by-point rebuttal of both Foster's linguistic analysis and external findings, buttressed by the work of autograph expert James Lowe and Dr. Joe Nickell, author of Pen, Ink and Evidence.[9][10][11]

Evidence in favor of Moore[edit source | edit]

Moore is credited by his friend Charles Fenno Hoffman as author in the December 25, 1837, Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier. Further, the Rev. David Butler, who allegedly showed the poem to Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley, was a relative of Moore's. A letter to Moore from the publisher states "I understand from Mr. Holley that he received it from Mrs. Sackett, the wife of Mr. Daniel Sackett who was then a merchant in this city"[citation needed]. Moore, who preferred to be known for his more scholarly works, allowed the poem to be included in his anthology in 1844, at the request of his children. By that time, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Though Livingston family lore gives credit to their forebear, not Moore, there is no proof that Livingston himself ever claimed authorship, nor has any record ever been found – despite over 40 years of searches – of any printing of the poem with Livingston’s name attached to it.

Evidence in favor of Livingston[edit source | edit]

Advocates for Livingston's authorship argue that Moore "tried at first to disavow" the poem,[12] contending that although he claimed only two changes were introduced in the first printing it actually differs from his own on 23 points.[citation needed] They also posit that Moore falsely claimed to have translated a book.[13] Document dealer and historian Seth Kaller has challenged both claims. Regarding the latter, Kaller, having examined the book in question, A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, as well as many letters signed by Moore, found that the "signature" was not penned by Moore, and thus provides no evidence that Moore made any plagiaristic claim. Kaller's findings were confirmed by autograph expert James Lowe, by Dr. Joe Nickell, the author of Pen, Ink & Evidence, and by others. According to Kaller, Moore's name was likely written on the book by a New-York Historical Society cataloger to indicate that it had been a gift from Moore to the Society.[14][15][16]

The following points have been advanced in order to credit the poem to Major Henry Livingston, Jr.:

Livingston also wrote poetry primarily using an anapaestic metrical scheme, and it is claimed that some of the phraseology of A Visit is consistent with other poems by Livingston, and that Livingston's poetry is more optimistic than Moore's poetry published in his own name. But Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his Battle for Christmas, that the poem could have been a social satire of the Victorianization of Christmas. Furthermore, Kaller claims that Foster cherry-picked only the poems that fit his thesis and that many of Moore's unpublished works have a tenor, phraseology and meter similar to A Visit. Moore had even written a letter titled "From Saint Nicholas" that may have predated 1823.

Foster also contends that Moore hated tobacco and would therefore never have depicted St. Nicholas with a pipe. However, Kaller notes, the source of evidence for Moore's supposed disapproval of tobacco is The Wine Drinker, another poem by him. In actuality, that verse contradicts such a claim. Moore's The Wine Drinker criticizes self-righteous, hypocritical advocates of temperance who secretly indulge in the substances they publicly oppose, and supports the social use of tobacco (as well as wine, and even opium, which was more acceptable in his day than it is now) in moderation.

Foster also asserts that Livingston's mother was Dutch, which accounts for the references to the Dutch Sinteklaes tradition and the use of the Dutch names "Dunder and Blixem" (although "Donder and Blitzen" is slightly closer to German Donner and Blitzen than to their Dutch cognates). Against this claim, it is suggested by Kaller that Moore — a friend of writer Washington Irving and member of the same literary society — may have acquired some of his knowledge of New York Dutch traditions from Irving. Irving had written A History of New York in 1809 under the name of "Dietrich Knickerbocker." It includes several references to legends of St. Nicholas, including the following that bears a close relationship to the poem:

And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream, — and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country; and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.

— Washington Irving, A History of New York[17]

Cover of a 1912 edition of the poem, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

In popular culture[edit source | edit]

The very well known poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas", has inspired many parodies,[18] adaptations and references in popular culture.

Comics[edit source | edit]

Films[edit source | edit]

Literature[edit source | edit]

Music and spoken word[edit source | edit]

Radio and television[edit source | edit]

Other[edit source | edit]

See also[edit source | edit]

References[edit source | edit]

Notes
  1. ^ a b c Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 462-463 ISBN 0-19-511634-8
  2. ^ Walsh, Joseph J. (2001). Were They Wise Men Or Kings?: The Book of Christmas Questions. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 11. ISBN 0-664-22312-5. 
  3. ^ Kaller, Seth. "The Authorship of The Night Before Christmas," http://www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc/#ch1
  4. ^ Siefker, Phyllis (1997). Santa Claus,. McFarland & Company. p. 4. ISBN 0-7864-0246-6. 
  5. ^ Kaller, Seth. "The Authorship of The Night Before Christmas," http://www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc/#ch1
  6. ^ "Copy of Poem Sold; 'Twas Worth $280K". Washington Post. Associated Press. December 19, 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  7. ^ Mann, Ted. "Ho, Ho, Hoax," Scarsdale Magazine, November 30, 2006
  8. ^ a b "Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748–1828) Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas", Representative Poetry Online
  9. ^ Kaller, Seth. "The Authorship of The Night Before Christmas," http://www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc/#ch1
  10. ^ Lowe, James. “A Christmas to Remember: A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Autograph Collector. January 2000. 26-29.
  11. ^ Nickell, Joe. “The Case of the Christmas Poem.” Manuscripts, Fall 2002, 54;4:293-308; Nickell, Joe. “The Case of the Christmas Poem: Part 2.” Manuscripts, Winter 2003, 55;1:5-15.
  12. ^ Christoph, Peter. "Clement Moore Revisited". Major Henry Livingston, Jr., the author of "Night Before Christmas". Intermedia Enterprises. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  13. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D. (October 26, 2000). "Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2008-04-08. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  14. ^ Kaller, Seth. "The Moore Things Change...," The New-York Journal of American History, Fall 2004
  15. ^ Lowe, James. "A Christmas to Remember: A Visit from St. Nicholas," Autograph Collector, January 2000, pp. 26-29
  16. ^ Kaller, Seth. "The Authorship of The Night Before Christmas," http://www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc/#ch1
  17. ^ A history of New York: from the ... - Washington Irving - Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2011-11-12. 
  18. ^ Emery, David. "With Apologies to Clement C. Moore...". Urban Legends. About.com. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  19. ^ "Memorable Quotes from Die Hard". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  20. ^ Wing. The Night Before Kindergarten. Night Before Series. Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 978-0-448-42500-9. 
  21. ^ Trosclair (September 1992) [1973]. Cajun Night Before Christmas. Night Before Christmas Series (20th Anniversary Edition ed.). Pelican Publishing Company. ISBN 0-88289-940-6. 
  22. ^ Monroe, Mathew. "Canonical List of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas Variations". Archived from the original on 16 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  23. ^ Gospelweb.net. "Marine Christmas Poem - originally written by a Marine, for Marines". Gospelweb.net. Retrieved 2011-11-12. 
  24. ^ "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". Kokomo.ca. Retrieved 2011-11-12. 
  25. ^ "'Christmas Song U.S. 12" Vinyl (EAS 6643)'". Korn Is Peachy. GeoCities.com. Archived from the original on 2009-10-23. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  26. ^ The New York Times December 25, 1930
  27. ^ New York Times December 22, 1917
  28. ^ Luekart, Hank (1994). "The Night Before Doom". Doomworld. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  29. ^ Cerf, Vint (December 1985). "RFC 968: Twas the Night Before Start-up". Request for Comments. Internet Engineering Task Force. Archived from the original on 28 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
Further reading

External links[edit source | edit]