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The Night Before Christmas

Night Before Christmas®

Christmas Eve—a night of expectation, with families and friends drawing together—a night when the hectic pace of the last few weeks changes to one of peace and reflection. For over a century, many have made "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" part of their yearly Christmas tradition. The familiar story is still read to excited youngsters on this night.

For whom was "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" written?

The two most common explanations are stories about Clement C. Moore, who until recently has been credited with writing "Twas the Night Before Christmas":

While traveling home from Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, where he had bought a turkey for his family's Christmas dinner, Moore penned the story for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. The plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City inspired him. Moore's vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears during the Christmas season. It also is based on the German legend of a visitor who enters homes through chimneys. Clement Moore knew of such folklore as a learned man of literature. He was born into a well-respected New York family in 1779. His father, Benjamin Moore, had served as president of Columbia University and Episcopal bishop of New York, participating in the inauguration of George Washington as the nation's first president.

Another story says that Clement C. Moore wrote it for his son Robert in 1822. Robert liked to ride his pony, Lightning, in the woods and one day, he and his pony took a spill. Since his pony had broken 2 legs, they shot it. Robert loved his pony so much, so he did not try to get well, and each day he called pitifully for Lightning. His father had been working on a dictionary before the accident and thought if only he could write a Christmas story that would interest his son. He had written many books for college students, but never a children's book. He finished writing "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" on Christmas eve. As he started to read, a few lines at a time, Robert responded with a tiny smile and when the time he was through reading the Christmas poem, he said, "Read it again." Again his father read the story of a visit from St. Nicholas. This time when Moore finished reading the holiday poem, Robert asked if their tree was up. When his father said it was, Robert asked to see the tree.

But who wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas?"

Clement C. Moore
Photo of Clement C. Moore

Recently, Moore's claim to 'Twas The Night Before Christmas has been challenged, most notably by Don Foster. Foster's analysis of this deception appears in his book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt, 2000). Foster ascertains that a Dutch poet named Henry Livingston Jr. was the original author of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas."

While some may believe this accusation is far-fetched, Foster deserves some credibility to his claim. Using computers to identify author's tendencies, Foster was able to identify Joe Klein as the author of the novel "Primary Colors" and Shakespeare as the author of the anonymous poem "Funeral Elegy."

Many websites claim that Professor Moore was a private person and the popularity of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" embarrassed him. Moore finally admitted to writing the Christmas poem in 1837. Newspapers published it a decade later.

Is it possible that Moore was hesitant to claim the work for so many years because it wasn't his to begin with? Or was it simply because being published in a newspaper was considered beneath him?

According to Mr. Foster's research, 15 years before the famous Christmas poem ever saw the light of a Troy day, Henry Livingston's children heard their father recite it to the family as one of his own composition. The two oldest children of his second wife, and a neighbor child who married one of the boys, all remember Henry coming out from his writing den under the staircase and reading them that never-to-be-forgotten poem. After Henry was dead, the poem become famous, long before Moore ever took credit for their father's poem. Those same children read it to their children and proudly told them that it had been written by their grandfather.

It was another 15 years after Moore took credit for Henry's poem that Henry's family discovered Moore's claim. Moore's book, in which he published Henry's poem, did not receive much praise, so the "fact" of Moore's claim spread slowly. After Henry's original manuscript of the poem burned in a fire in 1859 in Wisconsin, Henry's family had no proof to bring forward against Moore's claim. (Moore claimed not to need an original manuscript since he invented the 56 line poem out of the air complete, and wrote it down perfectly.)

Other publications are starting to accept Foster's claim. In the November 13, 2001 issue of PEOPLE, and article entitled "Poetic Injustice" discusses this issue. Part of the evidence it cites is that Moore only took credit for the poem after he'd written to a Troy, N. Y. newspaper to see if anyone could remember its origin. He received a response that no one could pinpoint its origin.

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, although 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 lightning, to Donder and Blitzen. Livingston was Dutch; Moore wasn't.

So, what is the truth about "'Twas the Night Before Christmas?"

The truth is that it was published, it became incredibly popular, and is an important part of our Christmas traditions. As with many Christmas legends, we will probably never know the entire truth.

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