The Anonymous Publishing of “The Night Before Christmas,” and Other Interesting Christmas Staple Origins

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Aiko S. asks: Who wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas?

Clement_MooreOn December 23, 1823, the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, better known today as The Night Before Christmas was first published. The poem first appeared in the New York Sentinel with no author listed, having been delivered for publication by a friend of Clement Clarke Moore, who was a professor of Greek and Oriental literature and who is generally considered today to have been the author.

Before this poem was published, traditions surrounding St. Nicholas were numerous with no real set, near universally accepted idea of “Santa Claus” like we have today. Elements of the Santa tradition that ended up being popularized by this poem include: the names and number of Santa’s reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen, with the latter Donder and Blitzen meaning “Thunder” and “Lightning”); Santa’s means of transportation; that Santa Claus visited houses on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day; the overall appearance of Santa Clause; and that Santa brought toys to children.

One interesting thing to note, however, is that while the general appearance, in terms of the flowing beard, rosy cheeks, etc., of Santa Claus was popularized by this poem, the Santa we know today has had one very big change over Moore’s description- namely that Santa is now big. If you go back and read the actual poem, you’ll note that Moore described St. Nick, (who he never called Santa Clause) as “a little old driver,” with a “little round belly… chubby and plump.” He also described St. Nick riding a “miniature sleigh” with “eight tiny reindeer” that had little hooves. This, of course, explains how St. Nick was able to fit down a chimney without any magical means necessary- he was a tiny little elf.

In any event, although Moore is most likely the author of The Night Before Christmas, there is some very small debate as to whether it was, in fact, written by a relation of Moore’s (distant relation through his wife), Major Henry Livingston, Jr.

To begin with, Moore didn’t claim authorship of the poem until long after it was published, even going so far as to deny having penned it at times when others claimed it was so. It is thought he was initially hesitant to claim it primarily because he was a very well respected scholar and didn’t want to be associated with what is essentially a fantastical children’s poem. However, he was later convinced by his own children to include it in his 1844 anthology of his works and from then on reluctantly admitted he wrote it.

Given that he eventually claimed it and that it is known that the poem was delivered to the Sentinel by a friend of Moore’s (who incidentally is known to have believed Moore wrote it), most historians accept that Moore was the author.

However, Major Henry Livingston, Jr.’s children claimed otherwise. Twenty six years after the poem was first published, and twenty one years after Livingston’s death, his children learned that Moore was taking credit for the poem. They then claimed their father used to recite the poem to them every year starting a full fifteen years before it appeared in the Sentinel, with the first time he read it to them being around 1807. This story was also corroborated by a neighbor of the Livingstons.

So is there any truth to this?

It should be noted that that neighbor in question who affirmed the Livingston-kid’s story also eventually married Charles Livingston, one of the sons of Major Henry Livingston, and was married to him at the time they were making these claims. They also claimed to have once had a copy of the original manuscript, but that it was lost in a house fire. In the end, the only proof the family had was their own story. Given the evidence that Moore wrote it and that Livingston himself never claimed it, most scholars have not taken this claim seriously.

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Bonus Facts:

  • In some modern versions of The Night Before Christmas, St. Nicholas is stated to have exclaimed “as he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”  However, in the original, he made the proclamation before setting off (“ere he drove out of sight”), not as he drove out of sight.
  • The guy who did the voice for Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, Thurl Ravenscroft, also sang, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, though he originally went unintentionally uncredited in the film.  Because of this, a common misconception rose up that it was Boris Karloff, the narrator of the movie, who did the singing for the song.  None other than Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) himself tried to rectify the issue by writing letters to various journalists explaining the oversight and asking if they mention the movie and song, that they give Ravenscroft proper credit.  He also called Ravenscroft and apologized for the mix up.
  • A Jewish man, Johnny Marks, wrote such Christmas-song staples as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, A Holly Jolly Christmas, Run Rudolph Run; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the song), and I Heard Bells on Christmas Day, among other popular Christmas tunes.  He also wrote many of the songs in the CBS TV version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, including: The Most Wonderful Day of the Year, Silver and Gold, We are Santa’s Elves, There’s Always Tomorrow, The Island of Misfit Toys, We’re a Couple of Misfits, and Jingle Jingle Jingle
  • Speaking of everyone’s favorite red-nosed reindeer, in the original version of the movie, once Rudolph and company leave the island of misfit toys, they never bother to go back and help the toys, despite the promise to do so.  Due to the number of complaints about this after the movie’s release, a new scene was later added to the end with Rudolph leading Santa back to the island to collect the toys.
  • While Joy to the World is a common Christmas song today, it is actually about Jesus’ projected return, not his birth.  It was based heavily on Psalm 98 in the Bible.  The song was composed by Isaac Watts and is about Jesus’ triumphant return at the end of the current age.  It was one of over 750 hymns composed by Isaac Watts, many of which are still popular today, such as This is the Day the Lord has Made.
  • In the song, Winter Wonderland: “In the meadow we can build a snowman, then pretend that he is Parson Brown,” Parson Brown is not the proper name of an individual, as many people think today, but rather a Parson with the last name Brown.  A Parson was simply a protestant minister who traveled around various small towns and would perform wedding ceremonies for people who lacked a protestant minister.  This changes the meaning of the next line a bit, as well, with many today thinking Parson Brown is playing husband when he’s in town: “He’ll say, ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say, ‘No man, but you can do the job while you’re in town.’”  They were just promising to let the Parson marry them to someone, rather than playing at being married to him.  The song was written by Dick Smith who was residing in a West Mountain Sanitarium, due to having contracted tuberculosis.  This is yet another “Christmas” song that’s not technically about Christmas. In fact, nowhere in the lyrics is Christmas mentioned; the song it just about playing in deep snow.
  • Jingle Bells is another Christmas staple that isn’t about Christmas at all, just, essentially, fast cars and picking up women.  No, really. Originally it was just as a general sleigh-song, which was a popular type of song at the time among teenagers.  If you exam the full lyrics, it’s pretty obvious. For instance, “I thought I’d take a ride, And soon, Miss Fanny Bright, Was seated by my side…” and “Go it while you’re young, Take the girls tonight, And sing this sleighing song…”
  • Jingle Bells was originally called One Horse Open Sleigh and was written by James Pierpont sometime between 1853 and 1857. At the time, Pierpont was working as an organist and music director in Savannah, Georgia.  Pierpont was hired on by his brother, John Pierpont Jr. who was the Reverend there, after James’ business in San Francisco burned down.  It was here that he composed One Horse Open Sleigh, reportedly for a Thanksgiving program. He later publicly released the song through Ditson and Co. of Boston in 1857, but it wasn’t terribly popular.  Pierpont tried again to release it in 1859 under the new title Jingle Bells, with it once again flopping. However, from there, it did slowly gain in popularity and became associated with Christmas, rather than just as a general sleigh-song.  By 1890, three years before Pierpont’s death, the song had become a huge Christmas hit and from 1890 to 1954 it managed to maintain a spot on the top 25 most recorded songs in the world.
  • If you’re wondering, in the Jingle Bells song, the sleigh traveling “two forty as his speed,” means it was going about 22.5 miles per hour (a mile in two minutes and forty seconds.)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life was based on a “Christmas Card” short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was originally sent out to around 200 of Stern’s friends and family in December of 1943. The short story was called The Greatest Gift and was inspired by a dream Stern had one night in the 1930s.  More on this here.

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2 Comments »

  1. Kris December 15, 2014 at 9:54 am - Reply

    I’m sort of surprised by the bonus fact about Winter Wonderland, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. I always thought that the definition of Parson as a title for clergy was a commonly known fact.

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