By Michael Slicker
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through 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;
Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas
The poem that gave us Santa Claus as an American tradition was first published anonymously in the Troy (NY) Sentinel in 1823. For generations, the poem was attributed to Clement C. Moore, a wealthy Manhattan biblical scholar.
Then about a decade ago, a literary sleuth from Vassar College advanced the notion that the famous poem was actually written by Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman poet from Poughkeepsie. The literary landscape at Christmas time has never been the same since.
Regardless of the author, the poem is probably the single work responsible for giving us the modern notion of Santa Claus, a jolly, rotund fellow with a sleigh full of toys powered by eight tiny reindeer. The poem also is the source of the tradition that Santa Claus lands on the rooftop and slides down the chimney.
To be sure, there were many European traditions from which Santa Claus came, but it was this poem, popularly known as The Night Before Christmas, that solidified in the American consciousness the traditions as we know them today.
The controversy over the authorship of the poem might have remained in literary obscurity forever had it not been for Mary Van Deusen, a descendant of Livingston and an amateur genealogist, who started pursuing the question while seeking information about her father, a Greenwich Village poet whom she had not known.
Van Deusen’s research led her to Don Foster, the Vassar professor, and the two worked together to uncover the facts they contend prove that Livingston probably wrote the poem and that Clement Moore most likely did not.
The New York Times published an extensive story about the controversy and Foster’s book, Author Unknown, in which he makes his case. Van Deusen produced a website with remarkable detail about the research and a wonderful collection of antique illustrated editions of America's favorite Christmas poem. Enjoy.
(Posted on the Lighthouse Books Blog, presented here by permission of the author.)