Thursday, December 21, 2006

Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Part One


No name is more closely associated with Christmas than Santa Claus and the description of him in the poem popularly called "The Night Before Christmas." The name Santa Claus, of course, is an alteration of St. Nicholas, and the poem's original title was "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." Other spellings of this name have included Sancte Klaas or St. Aclaus. We associate St. Nicholas with the Christmas season because his "feast day" is December 6.

The original St. Nicholas was born in Patara, near Myra, in present-day Turkey. The exact date of his birth is unknown but is sometimes given as A.D. 280. He died in the middle of the fourth century, supposedly on December 6. Stories about Nicholas's good deeds multiplied. He became famous as a rescuer and protector of children and, later, of parents, sailors and others. According to Martin Ebon, his biographer, he was the "favorite saint" of nearly everyone: "yearning virgins, barren wives, helpless infants, thieves and financiers, traveling students and pirating Vandals." St. Nicholas, whose bones are now reputed to be in Bari, Italy, is the patron saint of both Greece and Russia.

St. Nicholas in America
In New York City, after the Revolution the city's boosters rediscovered the city's rich Dutch history. John Pintard, a founder of the New-York Historical Society, set the Society's annual meeting on December 6, the saint's feast day. Just as Pintard had promoted St. Nicholas locally, upriver in Westchester, Washington Irving introduced Santa to a national readership in his bestselling satirical Knickerbocker's History of New York. In it, Irving mentions St. Nicholas 25 times, including references to his horse and wagon, his pipe and his habit of "laying his finger aside of his nose."

Irving's History supplied the first description of St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus). In it, he claimed that the figurehead on the first Dutch ship to enter New York Harbor was carved in the saint's image: a figure with "a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit." Surprisingly, there is no evidence that the cult of St. Nicholas existed in New Amsterdam or for more than a century after the British occupation in 1664.

Before 1820, St. Nicholas was pictured as a tall, skinny, stern bishop in clerical vestments who visited children and dispensed discipline as often as gifts. Our image of Santa Claus in a fur-trimmed red outfit, with a sack of toys, sleigh and reindeer owes much to an unattributed poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," that first appeared in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

The Poem
According to the legend that sprang up years afterward, Miss Sarah Harriet Butler of Troy was visiting the home of Clement Clarke Moore in New York City. She saw a written version of the poem, copied it without the permission of the author and submitted it anonymously to Orville Holley, the editor of the Sentinel. After its original publication, the poem--still unattributed--appeared occasionally and seasonally in newspapers and almanacs. Newspaper carriers also distributed it as a holiday gift to their customers. Not until 1844, did an "author" take credit for the poem. Clement Clarke Moore, a part-time professor at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York City, published it in a book of 37 poems, some of which were by other authors, including one by friend William Bard, one by diarist Philip Hone, and two by Moore's late wife.

Interestingly, before publishing this volume, Moore wrote to the former owner of the Troy Sentinel asking him how and from whom "A Visit from St. Nicholas" had reached the newspaper. A prompt response said that the text had been received from the wife of Daniel Sackett, a Troy merchant--an explanation that gave the lie to the Butler story. Before publishing the poem as his own, Clement Moore apparently had made sure that his claim to the poem as his own would not be challenged.

In the meantime, still farther up river friends and relatives of the late Maj. Henry Livingston, Jr. had been making claims that the now-famous anonymous poem had been written by him, a Revolutionary War veteran who had lived in Poughkeepsie. Major Livingston died in 1828, long before Clement Clarke Moore claimed to be its author. What was going on? Was Clement Clarke Moore, one of the wealthiest men in New York and a respected citizen, a plagiarist appropriating the work of another? Let's look at the record.

More about Clement Clarke Moore
After returning from the French and Indian War, Captain Thomas Clarke, an officer in the Colonial provincials, bought a farm in Manhattan from Jacob and Tunis Somerindyck. He named it Chelsea, after an institution for retired soldiers in London. The farm lay roughly between the present-day 19th and 24th streets and between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River. After the deaths of Capt. Clarke and Mrs. Clarke, the farm passed in 1802 to their daughter Charity and son-in-law, Benjamin Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York. Bishop Moore and his wife conveyed the property to their son, Clement Clarke Moore. A 1798 graduate of Columbia College, in 1809 he published A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.

As the finishing touches were being put on the facade of New York's City Hall in 1811, the Streets Commission issued a grid plan for streets to be laid out north of the city's existing jumble of streets in lower Manhattan. Twelve avenues, each 100 feet wide, would strike north from about Houston Street. Every 200 feet, narrower streets 50-60 feet wide would cut across the avenues at right angles. Every half mile or so, streets would be 100 feet wide (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th). Thus did today's street pattern come into being on Manhattan Island.

When the city cut Ninth Avenue through his estate, Clement Clarke Moore wrote an angry pamphlet addressed to his fellow real estate owners. In it, he described the new grid plan as a destructive conspiracy by patronage-hungry and well-connected "cartmen, carpenters, masons, pavers and all their host of attendant laborers." Moore really had little to complain about. The Streets Commission had made him a wealthy man. An epidemic of yellow fever drove thousands north out of the city. and Clement Moore carved out lots on Ninth Avenue for sale to genteel purchasers. He donated an apple orchard west of Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st streets for the site of the General Theological Seminary in return for a professorship in Greek and Oriental literature at that institution. He would remain there until 1850.

Enter Don Foster
Don Foster is a professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and a literary sleuth. Using a technique he pioneered, he first came to the reading public's attentionin 1995 when he claimed that William Shakespeare was the author of a poem whose authorship had stumped experts. Seven years later, a French Shakespearean scholar, Gilles Monsarrat, offered convincing proof that the poem's true author was John Ford, a contemporary playright. Foster graciously acknowledged his error, saying, "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar." He also showed that Joe Klein was the anonymous author of the bestselling novel Primary Colors after Klein publicly denied authorship. In the face of Foster's evidence, Klein sheepishly acknowledged authorship.

Foster's method involves intensive study of a text's wording and syntax to establish authorship. At the behest of descendants of Henry Livingston, Foster embarked on a literary archaeological expedition to try to unravel the mystery of the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "The Night before Christmas." The story of that search is told in the final chapter of Foster's book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000). Foster compares Moore and Livingston, their poetic styles, personalities, vocabularies, their writings and habits. His carefully documented case, even though based on circumstantial evidence, appears to leave little room for doubt.

Foster found that Moore, as a young bachelor, had written many poems signed with the initial "L." When Moore's volume of collected poems was published, it was reviewed bitingly. But one reviewer, writing for The Churchman, published by the Protestant Episcopal Church, gave the book a rave review. The anonymous reviewer signed the piece "L." Moore and Livingston were as opposite as day and night. The Taliban would have loved Clement Moore. He opposed democratic reforms, such as free public schools; Livingston argued for equal opportunity, regardless of gender, color or heritage. Moore protected his daughters from the harmful effects of book learning; Livingston praised women's zeal for education. Moore expressed disdain for American "Savages"; Livingston was a friend of the Indians. Moore defended slavery as ordained by God--he owned slaves himself; as early as 1788, Livingston called for emancipation. Moore was the son of a Loyalist during the Revolution; Livingston fought in the Continental Army.

Livingston wrote many of his poems in anapestic meter (with the accent on every third syllable--the same meter as "The Night Before Christmas"). Moore wrote only one undisputed poem, "The Pig and the Rooster" in anapestic meter--but this was after he had been credited with the Christmas poem. You be the judge. Compare these poems with the famous poem that begins, "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house":

Sample A
To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure....
For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice
Dire punishments shall fall upon your head;
Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread.

Sample B
Such gadding--such ambling--such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy--to sweet Willy's rout,
New parties at coffee--then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major must dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea [tea], and destroy bread and butter.

Clement Moore wrote Sample A; Henry Livingston wrote Sample B.

And here's the poem in question. You be the judge:

An Account of 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,
And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter'snap --
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his boot
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back;
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes--how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight--
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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