Behind the Fiction Past
By Vickie Adkins


The best Christmas book  (no matter who authored it…..)

The Night Before Christmas

When I was growing up, there was only one Christmas book.  I received it in a gift exchange in the third grade.  A hardback, actually, and although thin, its dimensions were approximately 16” x 12”.  I usually got the short end of the deal in gift exchanges, but this year, I thought I was the lucky one!  The book was bright red, and so shiny it appeared wet.  

I remember reading it over and over until I memorized it in its entirety.  To this day, I can quote the complete book.  Several years ago, I decided I wanted to buy a copy and make it a tradition to read this story to my children every Christmas Eve.  I did buy it, and now my children, although past the ages of being read to, can quote the entire book as well.

Imagine my surprise when I read that author, Professor Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) might not be the actual originator.  Literary Detective and Vassar College professor Donald W. Foster (remember “Primary Colors?”) believes that evidence is pretty strong that the actual author was Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828).

In the November 13, 2001 issue of PEOPLE, and article titled Poetic Injustice cites part of the evidence is that Moore, who was a wealthy New York City Bible Scholar only took credit for the poem, publishing it in 1844, after he’d written to a Troy, N. Y. newspaper to see if anyone could remember its origin (no one could).

Also, it appears that Moore was a bit of a grinch.  Foster went on to say, “He (Moore) was quite the curmudgeon,” pointing out that in his other writings Moore moralized against earthly pleasures, complained about children’s “noisiness” and scorned smoking, though St. Nick puffs a pipe. 

Another clue that Foster found to be strong evidence  is that Moore repeated a printer’s error that changed two reindeer’s names from Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightening, to Donder and Blitzen.  Livingston was Dutch; Moore wasn’t.

Foster’s analysis of this deception appears in his book, Author Unknown:  On the Trail of Anonymous (New York:  Henry Holt, 2000.

Although most likely written around 1807, the poem about St. Nicholas bounding down the chimney first made its way into the hearts of children of all ages in 1823.  Of course, knowing who actually wrote it doesn’t change our love for it; it only makes it more intriguing.  Acknowledgements are already changing from Moore to Livingston, although still gives Moore as the author.  This Christmas if you have the opportunity to read A visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, think of Henry Livingston.

By the way, Livingston was the father of twelve children.  His poems were published in a variety of periodicals before his death in 1828 at the age of 80.  Livingston often used the word “all” as an adverb, as in “all through the house” and “all snug in their beds,” and his horses were named “Dunder” and “Blixem”.

'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's nap --
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,
With the sleigh full of Toys -- and St. Nicholas too:
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 foot,
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

2002 Past Columns

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