If you don’t know much about literary history, it may come as a surprise that one of the most delightful Christmas traditions is surrounded in mystery, intrigue, and even a family feud. The poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” has been read to children in most every language across the world on Christmas Eve for more than a century. But the origin of this enchanting work is surrounded in ambiguity to this day and is likely to stay that way.
Mr. Livingston, I Presume?
Two families have been bickering over authorship of the poem: the Livingstons and the Moores. And while the general population takes it as gospel that Clement Clarke Moore penned the poem, the Livingston family has a wealth of circumstantial evidence that puts this in serious doubt.
Here are a couple of details that are widely accepted: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first printed in the Troy Sentinel, a New York newspaper, two days before the Christmas of 1823. In a preface to the printing, editor Orville Holley admitted the authorship was unclear:
“We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of music—that homely and delightful personage of parental kindness, Santa Claus, his costumes, and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the firesides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties; but from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it.”
Descendants of Henry Livingston have long held that their ancestor wrote the famous verses. They have many family stories of when and where Livingston was said to have written and recited the poem.
Bolstering their argument are literary specialists who have examined both men’s body of written works. Moore was a serious author with a theological background who founded a seminary, served as a professor of Hellenic and Hebrew literature, and wrote such riveting works as Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language. By way of personality, Moore was known as a harsh and demanding father of nine children.
Livingston’s works, however, reveal a similar rhythm and poetical structure to “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” His writings carried a comparable “light, joking style,” and he was known by friends and family as a “good-natured humorist at heart.”
Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of Livingston’s authorship is something called anapestic meter. This exact poetic structure was used in 45 of Livingston’s works (including “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), while Moore was known to write almost exclusively in iambic meter.
And so it seems the authorship of this work of literature will remain a mystery. But that should not stop children of all ages from enjoying its brilliant and evocative language. Without further ado, we publish “Twas the Night Before Christmas” here for your enjoyment:
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
By Clement C. Moore or Henry Livingston
‘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;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down 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 reindeer,
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 called them by name;
“Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that 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 hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked 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 laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed 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 filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang 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!”