On December 23, 1823, The Sentinel newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous little Christmas poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem contained charming imagery, a memorable rhyming pattern, and the names of all eight of Santa’s original red-nose-phobic reindeer.
The public loved it. It pervaded the holiday. It cemented the image of Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf. And it came to be known popularly by its first line: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
But while the poem took on a life of its own for several years, no one knew who wrote it. Then in 1837, poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman included it in the collection The New York Book of Poetry and attributed it to his buddy Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, in turn, included the poem in his own 1844 collection, oh-so-cleverly titled Poems, stating that though it was only a “long-ago trifle” of a poem, he was pleased enough to take credit for it.
And everyone was happy with that until a few years later when there arose such a clatter. The daughter of American Revolution veteran, surveyor, farmer, and amateur poet Henry Livingston said she believed her father had written the poem in 1808 and that the original handwritten copy of it had been lost to a housefire. By this time Livingston was deceased and had never claimed authorship of the poem. And though he was related to Clement Moore’s wife, as far as anyone knows, the two men never met one another.
Sounds a little suspect to me, but there are quite a few experts who, in comparing the style of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with that of each man, believe there may be a case to be made. Also, Moore was allegedly something of an overly serious curmudgeon who didn’t care particularly for children or charming things like dancing sugarplums.
However, unconvinced experts who still believe Moore to be the author, suggest this is an unfair assessment of a man who could be playful and jolly when he had a mind to, and who, more importantly, wasn’t an especially creative poet. His literary style tended to be imitative rather than original and so, really, he could have written like anyone, even an obscure relative of his wife.
Then too, The New Brunswick Museum has in its collection a version of the poem handwritten in 1824 by a member of the Odell family, who were friends of the Moores. It’s assumed one of the Odells wrote down a version of the poem from memory after hearing it recited by the poet himself.
While this isn’t conclusive evidence, a handwritten note can tell you a lot, as I was recently informed by the attendance secretary at my oldest son’s high school. Through no fault of my son’s own, he had to be a little late getting to school a few days ago and showed up part way through his first hour class.
Thinking it might be an excusable tardy, I had written and signed a note of explanation before sending him on his way. Later that day, the secretary called me to confirm that I was, in fact, the one who had written the note, since “anyone can write a note.” When I confirmed that I was, she chuckled and told me that she had actually assumed so, because most of their students couldn’t write in cursive, which is both sad and hilarious.
It was also not conclusive evidence that my son hadn’t forged his excuse. He didn’t, and I really don’t think he ever would. I’m also happy to report that he can write in cursive, though not nearly as legibly as I can, so I don’t think he’d ever get away with it if he wanted to try.
I suspect that Clement Moore wasn’t the sort to take credit for another man’s work, either, especially for a poem he thought of as a trifle. If only we had that 1808 copy of the poem handwritten by Henry Livingston. If we did, we might discover that it was written in cursive, which if nothing else, would serve as pretty good evidence that the poem was not written by a twenty-first century high school student.
Thank you to Herb from The Haps With Herb, who was kind enough to share this really funny clip in the comments of one of my posts a few weeks back when I mentioned that kids should learn cursive so they can read old timey documents.