Writing “The Night Before Christmas”: Who Dunnit?

December 19, 2019

Arguably the best known and most loved children’s poem in the English language, an “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”—better known as “The Night Before Christmas”—has long been the subject of a very adult controversy over its authorship.

First published anonymously in a New York newspaper, the Troy Sentinel, on December 23, 1823, the lighthearted verse began a mystery and a controversy that persists today. I was once asked to take on the case and solve the question of authorship, which I did, but there is always one problem with such an assignment: a detective’s reliance on the best evidence will inevitably be pushed aside by those attracted to long shots, motivated by what-ifs, and dazzled by the latest (often just developed) scientific-seeming “tests.” Nevertheless, I rounded up the usual suspects—there were just two—and published my results in the journal Manuscripts (Nickell 2002, 2003). (As we shall see presently, that was not the end of the matter.)

Clement C. Moore

Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863) was a professor of biblical study at the General Theological Seminary in New York, who wrote verse to amuse his children. His masterpiece was sent anonymously to the Troy Sentinel by a friend—much to Moore’s chagrin, since he considered his verses “mere trifles.” An anthology of 1837 included the poem at the urging of friends, and it attached Moore’s name. In 1840, William Cullen Bryant, the well-known poet, editor, and Moore friend, also included it in his Selections from the American Poets. Finally, in 1844, at the behest of his children, Moore published a volume of his verses in which he included the poem that had become increasingly famous.

There are no fewer than four manuscript copies in Moore’s own hand, as well as a beautifully calligraphed one by his daughter Mary, rendered in 1855. And whereas there is no evidence of the rival claimant having ever written any Santa Claus poem, Clement Moore in fact did write another—independent of “A Visit.” It is titled “From Saint Nicholas” and may well be the first American poem penned as a letter from Santa! It is addressed to Moore’s daughter Charity, who is just “beginning so nicely to spell.” Thus she could have been younger than six, which would mean that that verse antedates “A Visit.” It is even written in the same metrical form with the same rhyme scheme!

Henry Livingston Jr.

Conversely, Moore’s rival for authorship of “A Visit” is relatively obscure. The works of Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748–1828)—erstwhile soldier of the American Revolution and resident of Poughkeepsie, NY—have largely been promoted by his descendants who have eagerly sought to prove his authorship of the celebrated poem. Unfortunately, his descendants have claimed various dates of authorship, between about 1780 and 1810, but they have never been able to supply a manuscript copy, published text, or document of any type that gives evidence of his authorship. Indeed, endless searching over the years for a purported earlier printing in some area newspaper has represented a failed grail-like quest.

Since the sources of the belief that Livingston wrote “A Visit” are all limited to the family and not anyone else in the Poughkeepsie area, it seems probable that the Livingston claim rests on a mistake. Possibly a family member who heard the Moore poem read aloud had assumed it was by Livingston, the rest being family folklore.

Provenance

A highly significant issue in such a matter of authentication is the question of provenance (or record of existence) of a work. In the case of “A Visit,” while Troy Sentinel editor Orville Holley, who first published the poem, did not know who had written it, six years later (in 1829) he had new information: He stated that “by birth and residence,” the author was from New York City, and was a scholar and writer. This cannot describe non-scholar Livingston of Poughkeepsie, but it precisely fits Professor Clement C. Moore—a clear indication that the paper trail leads to Moore. Even Livingston supporter MacDonald P. Jackson (on whom more later on) acknowledges (2016, 11) that “the documentary evidence, taken at face value, does favor Moore’s authorship.”

Further, in an 1844 letter, Norman Tuttle, former owner of the Troy Sentinel, told Moore how the newspaper’s editor Holley had obtained the poem: “I understood from Mr. Holley that he received it from Mrs. Sackett, the wife of Mr. Daniel Sackett who was then a merchant in this city.” She probably obtained the copy to share with her Sunday school class. The Troy Sentinel published the poem several times between 1823 and 1829 by which time Holley had obviously identified Moore as the author (Nickell 2002, 297–299).

Compared to the provenance tracing back to Moore, the Henry Livingston claim is entirely devoid of any credible chain of evidence. It is merely “said to” have ended up with Livingston’s son Edwin and then perished in a house fire (Jackson 2016, 10–11, 108–109). It is hearsay at many removes, unsupported by any contemporary document or clipping. There is no good evidence to prove that Major Livingston ever even claimed the poem as his.

Occam’s Razor

Like provenance, the scientific rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor is a useful tool in authentication. It holds that of various hypotheses that might explain something, one should prefer the one with the fewest assumptions.

For example, the hypothesis that Livingston wrote “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” requires a long sequence of assumptions: that Livingston actually wrote any St. Nicholas poem, that he either never published it or that all published and/or manuscript copies became lost, that either no one outside his family ever knew the fact of his authorship or remained silent about it, that someone nevertheless obtained a copy of Livingston’s poem and sent that or another copy to the Troy Sentinel in 1823, that others stated (in 1837 and 1840 publications) it was Moore’s without sparking contradiction, that Moore—an otherwise principled man—falsely claimed authorship, that no one came forward (say from the Livingston family) to dispute Moore’s claim until about 1860, and—well, the assumptions go on and on.

In contrast is the simple hypothesis that Moore wrote the poem, which family members and friends well knew, one of whom sent it anonymously to the Troy Sentinel in 1823. Rather than prefer the torturous hypothesis of Livingston’s authorship, the principle of Occam’s razor urges us to accept the many times more likely hypothesis that Clement Moore was the author, just as provenance also has demonstrated.

Corroborative Evidence

Then, there is further evidence, corroborating that from both provenance and Occam’s razor. For example there is the following:

  • The form of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is a ballad—indeed what I have called “a magical children’s ballad”—whereas Livingston’s most comparable efforts tended to be verse epistles. If the Livingstonites can show a similar magical children’s ballad (I have challenged [Nickell 2003, 10]), they should exhibit it for comparison. Otherwise Moore’s “The Pig and Rooster” being an example, the already untenable Livingston claim is rendered even more untenable.
  • Interestingly, the very first deceased poet to have been credited with the anonymously published work was not Henry Livingston, Jr., after all. Rather it was one Joseph Wood to whom an excerpt was misattributed in a Washington paper in 1843. Appropriately it was Moore himself (1844) who corrected that error in a subsequent letter to the editor.
  • Among still other points of corroborative evidence is the famous poem’s addition of multiple reindeer to the Santa tradition. A reindeer first appeared in an obscure volume in 1821, and “A Visit” multiplied a single animal into eight. The poem was thus composed sometime in the 1821–1822 range, confirming Moore’s authorship over Livingston’s, which was supposedly much earlier (Nickell 2003, 8).

Best Evidence

Livingston’s champions—like Don Foster (2000) and, more recently MacDonald P. Jackson (2016)—seem hell bent on discarding the precept of “best evidence.” When evidence seems decisive—as in the case for Moore—but does not give the answer they wish, they are led by confirmation bias to dismiss it, or to attempt to rationalize it away, and then to replace it with a focus on style. But analysis of style is problematic, especially when applied to poetry, where word choice and other factors may be affected by the strictures of cadence, the demand for rhyme, the influence of other works, the sheer temptation of whim and fancy, and so on. (For instance, using computer analysis of style, Foster once attributed an apocryphal poem, “A Funeral Elegy,” to Shakespeare, but later had  to admit his error [“Shakespeare Apocrypha” 2019].)

Jackson (2016) is particularly egregious in preferring style over substantive external elements. Forgetting the old maxim of “garbage in, garbage out,” he opts for computer analysis, employing a range of dubious “tests” and even introduces “a new one”—that is, one unproven by time. As if he were touting DNA, Jackson looks at a “mass of data” involving phonemes (distinct units of sound in a particular language that distinguish words from others). Then, with little more than a first-look potential, he decides he can thus separate “most Livingston poems from most Moore poems,” and later becomes awash in phonemic analysis. He plunges in over his head with statistical data that may ultimately be misleading in light of poetic complexity and other issues involved, reaching conclusions that are at best unproven and are trumped by much better evidence, including more powerful stylistic factors.

It is time now for the Livingstonites to concede what overwhelming evidence, including the best evidence, demonstrates, that Clement Clarke Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas,” a fact well understood for two centuries—a few contrarians notwithstanding.

References

Foster, Don. 2000. Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Jackson, MacDonald P. 2016. Who Wrote “The Night Before Christmas”? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question.

Moore, Clement C. 1844. Letter to editor of New York American, March 1; cited in Norsworthy 2017.

Nickell, Joe. 2002. “The Case of the Christmas Poem,” part I. Manuscripts 54:4 (Fall), 293–308.

———. 2003. “The Case of the Christmas Poem,” part II. Manuscripts 55:1 (Winter) , 5–15.

Norsworthy, Scott. 2017. How we know that Clement C. Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” (and Henry Livingston, Jr. did not). Online at https://melvilliana.blogspot.com/2017/05/how-we-know-that-clement-c-moore-wrote.html ; accessed December 16, 2019.

Shakespeare Apocrypha. 2019. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_apocrypha#A_Funeral_Elegy; accessed December 18, 2019.