Who penned America’s most famous poem about Santa Claus, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “T’was the Night before Christmas”? As everyone knows, it was Clement Clarke Moore, a Bible professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary, right? Not so fast! In a ground-breaking article by Don Foster, “Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus,” (Author Unknown, 2000) the evidence is laid out to show that Clement Clarke Moore was not the author of the celebrated poem. Vassar College professor Don Foster believes that the author was one lively and versatile Dutch American named Henry Livingston.
The facts are these: the poem was first published anonymously in December of 1823 in the Troy Sentinel. Other newspapers and magazines quickly reprinted it and by 1836, in light of its sensational popularity, someone ventured a guess as to its author, ascribing it to Clement Clarke Moore. For whatever reason, Moore did not deny the attribution. Livingston could not correct the error because he had died in 1828. His children protested on his behalf to no avail. Livingston had regularly submitted poems and engravings, and satires to the newspapers and magazines anonymously or under whimsical pseudonyms like “Henry Hotspur” or “Peter Pumpkineater.” When they saw “T’was the Night before Christmas,” they immediately recognized it as their father’s work.
The issue might have been easily resolved by producing the original autograph of the poem, in the penmanship of either Livingston or Moore, but alas, such a definitive proof does not exist. Suspiciously, in 1844, Moore himself wrote to Norman Tuttle, the former owner of the Troy Sentinel, asking where, how, and from whom the newspaper had obtained its copy of the poem. The answer given to Moore: the poem had come by way of a third party, and the Troy Sentinel never knew the identity of the author. The coast clear, Moore felt free to accept responsibility for the poem. That same year, 1844, he publically claimed authorship.
I don’t believe that Moore acted mischievously; I just think that by 1844 it had become too awkward and personally embarrassing for a man like Moore, who had suddenly been thrust into the limelight by people attributing the poem to him, to disown the poem. After all, twenty years had passed since its publication and no one else had stepped forward to claim it.
I cannot, in a short blog, lay out all the evidence of the case. It must be considered in its entirety because it is made from the accumulation of small bits of data that amount to a big conclusion. The case for Henry Livingston and against Clement Moore is constructed from a close analysis of the style, rhythm, and word-choice of the poem itself and a comparison of the poem with the other written works of the two men.
To give one example of the fruit of this analysis: the original ending of the 1823 “A Visit from St. Nicholas” has St. Nick calling out “Happy Christmas to all,” not “Merry Christmas to all.” The minor change from “Happy” to “Merry” was introduced by later editors who reproduced the poem in various periodicals. Why make such a trivial change? One reason, “Happy Christmas” was not as common a greeting as was “Merry Christmas.” Another reason, it sounds better lyrically. Why, then, would the original author have used the expression, “Happy Christmas”? As it turns out, “Happy Christmas” was a peculiar expression of Henry Livingston, as can be demonstrated from his personal correspondence. Clement Moore, by contrast, never greeted anyone, in personal letters or public writings, with either expression.
It is a small matter, perhaps, but it is an example of the cumulative evidence that adds up to one conclusion: Henry Livingston was the true author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”