A Visit from St. Nicholas

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"A Visit from St. Nicholas", more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from its first line, is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837.

Clement Clarke Moore American biblical scholar

Clement Clarke Moore was a writer and American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in New York City. The seminary was developed on land donated by Moore and it continues on this site at Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st streets, in an area known as Chelsea Square. Moore's connection with the seminary continued for more than 25 years.


The poem has been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American" [1] and is largely responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today. It has had a massive impact on the history of Christmas gift-giving. Before the poem gained wide popularity, American ideas had varied considerably about Saint Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" eventually was set to music and has been recorded by many artists.

Santa Claus Folkloric figure, said to deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa, is a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on the night of Christmas Eve and the early morning hours of Christmas Day. The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas, the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas. Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

Christmas holiday originating in Christianity, usually celebrated on December 25 (in the Gregorian or Julian calendars)

Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world's nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.

Saint Nicholas 4th-century Christian saint

Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common for early Christian saints, and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus through Sinterklaas.


On Christmas Eve night, a father, his wife and their children are asleep in their beds, but the father is awakened by noises outside his house. Looking out the window, he sees Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) in an air-borne sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. After landing his sleigh on the roof, Santa enters the house through the chimney, carrying a sack of toys with him. The father watches Santa fill the stockings hanging by the fireplace, and laughs to himself. They share a conspiratorial moment before Santa bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, Santa wishes a "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

Christmas Eve Evening or entire day before Christmas Day

Christmas Eve is the evening or entire day before Christmas Day, the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus. Christmas Day is observed around the world, and Christmas Eve is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of Christmas Day. Together, both days are considered one of the most culturally significant celebrations in Christendom and Western society.

Santa Clauss reindeer Legendary reindeer who pull Santa Clauss sleigh

In traditional festive legend, Santa Claus's reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve. The commonly cited names of the eight reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. They are based on those used in the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore, arguably the basis of the reindeers' popularity.


The poem's meter is anapestic tetrameter (four feet of unstressed-unstressed-stressed). The anapest is the same foot used to construct limericks, and the common metrical modifications that can be observed in the limerick form also can be observed in Moore's poem. For example, while the first two lines each use full anapests, lines 3 and 4 each drop the first unstressed syllable. Likewise, lines 9 and 10 drop the first unstressed syllable; they also add an extra unstressed syllable to the end.

Anapestic tetrameter is a poetic meter that has four anapestic metrical feet per line. Each foot has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. It is sometimes referred to as a "reverse dactyl", and shares the rapid, driving pace of the dactyl.

Literary history

Clement Clarke Moore, the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas The Author of 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' - Clement C. Moore crop.png
Clement Clarke Moore, the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas

The authorship of "A Visit" is credited to Clement Clarke Moore who is said to have composed it on a snowy winter's day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas. Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today while borrowing other aspects, such as the use of reindeer. [2] The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on 23 December 1823, having been sent there by a friend of Moore, [1] and was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. It was first attributed in print to Moore in 1837. Moore himself acknowledged authorship when he included it in his own book of poems in 1844. By then, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. [3] [4] Moore had a reputation as an erudite professor and had not wished at first to be connected with the unscholarly verse. He included it in the anthology at the insistence of his children, for whom he had originally written the piece. [3]

Troy, New York City in New York, United States

Troy is a city in the U.S. state of New York and the seat of Rensselaer County. The city is located on the western edge of Rensselaer County and on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. Troy has close ties to the nearby cities of Albany and Schenectady, forming a region popularly called the Capital District. The city is one of the three major centers for the Albany Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which has a population of 1,170,483. At the 2010 census, the population of Troy was 50,129. Troy's motto is Ilium fuit. Troja est, which means "Ilium was, Troy is".

Professor academic title at universities and other post-secondary education and research institutions in most countries

Professor is an academic rank at universities and other post-secondary education and research institutions in most countries. Literally, professor derives from Latin as a "person who professes" being usually an expert in arts or sciences, a teacher of the highest rank.

Moore's conception of Saint Nicholas was borrowed from his friend Washington Irving, but Moore portrayed his "jolly old elf" as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year's Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as the result of "Catholic ignorance and deception" [1] and still had reservations. By having Saint Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore "deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations." As a result, "New Yorkers embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives." [1]

Washington Irving American writer, historian and diplomat

Washington Irving was an American short story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early 19th century. He is best known for his short stories "Rip Van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), both of which appear in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. His historical works include biographies of Oliver Goldsmith, Islamic prophet Muhammad, and George Washington, as well as several histories of 15th century Spain that deal with subjects such as Alhambra, Christopher Columbus, and the Moors.

New Years Day Holiday

New Year's Day, also simply called New Year or New Year's, is observed on January 1, the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar as well as the Julian calendar.

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, editor Edmund Clarence Stedman reprinted the Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen" that he adopted, rather than the earlier Dutch version from 1823 "Dunder and Blixem." Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though the German word for thunder is "Donner" and the words in modern Dutch would be "Donder en Bliksem."

Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities. For example, breast in "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" is frequently bowdlerized to crest; the archaic ere in "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight" is frequently replaced with as. This change implies that Santa Claus made his exclamation during the moment that he disappeared from view, while the exclamation came before his disappearance in the original. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night" is frequently rendered with the traditional English locution "Merry Christmas".

Authorship controversy

Moore's connection with the poem has been questioned by Professor Donald Foster, [5] who used textual content analysis and external evidence to argue that Moore could not have been the author. [6] Foster believes that Major Henry Livingston Jr., a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, should be considered the chief candidate for authorship, a view long espoused by the Livingston family. Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife. [6] Foster's claim, however, has been countered by document dealer and historian Seth Kaller, who once owned one of Moore's original manuscripts of the poem. Kaller has offered a point-by-point rebuttal of both Foster's linguistic analysis and external findings, buttressed by the work of autograph expert James Lowe and Dr. Joe Nickell, author of Pen, Ink and Evidence. [3] [7] [8]

Evidence in favor of Moore

On January 20, 1829, Troy editor Orville L. Holley alluded to the author of the Christmas poem, using terms that accurately described Moore as a native and current resident of New York City, and as "a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and a writer than many of more noisy pretensions." [9] In December 1833, a diary entry by Francis P. Lee, a student at General Theological Seminary when Moore taught there, referred to a holiday figure of St. Nicholas as being "robed in fur, and dressed according to the description of Prof. Moore in his poem." [10] Four poems including "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appeared under Moore's name in The New-York Book of Poetry, edited by Charles Fenno Hoffman (New York: George Dearborn, 1837). The Christmas poem appears on pp. 217–19, credited to "Clement C. Moore." Moore stated in a letter to the editor of the New York American (published on March 1, 1844) that he "gave the publisher" of The New-York Book of Poetry "several pieces, among which was the 'Visit from St. Nicholas.'" Admitting that he wrote it "not for publication, but to amuse my children," Moore claimed the Christmas poem in this 1844 letter as his "literary property, however small the intrinsic value of that property may be." "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appears on pp. 124–27 in Moore's volume of collected Poems (New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1844). Before 1844, the poem was included in two 1840 anthologies: attributed to "Clement C. Moore" in Selections from The American Poets, edited by William Cullen Bryant (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1840), pp. 285–86; and to "C. C. Moore" in the first volume of The Poets of America, edited by John Keese (New York: S. Colman, 1840), pp. 102–04. The New-York Historical Society has a later manuscript of the poem in Moore's handwriting, forwarded by T. W. C. Moore along with a cover letter dated March 15, 1862 giving circumstances of the poem's original composition and transmission after a personal "interview" with Clement C. Moore. [11]

After "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appeared under Moore's name in the 1837 New-York Book of Poetry, newspaper printings of the poem often credited Moore as the author. For example, the poem is credited to "Professor Moore" in the 25 December 1837 Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier. Although Moore did not authorize the earliest publication of the poem in the Troy Sentinel, he had close ties to Troy through the Protestant Episcopal Church that could explain how it got there. Harriet Butler of Troy, New York (daughter of the Rev. David Butler) who allegedly showed the poem to Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley, was a family friend of Moore's and possibly a distant relative. [12] A letter to Moore from the publisher Norman Tuttle states, "I understand from Mr. Holley that he received it from Mrs. Sackett, the wife of Mr. Daniel Sackett who was then a merchant in this city". [13] The reported involvement of two women, Harriet Butler and Sarah Sackett, as intermediaries is consistent with the 1862 account of the poem's earliest transmission in which T. W. C. Moore describes two stages of copying, first "by a relative of Dr Moores in her Album" and second, "by a friend of hers, from Troy." [14] Moore preferred to be known for his more scholarly works, but allowed the poem to be included in his anthology in 1844 at the request of his children. By that time, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Livingston family lore gives credit to their forebear rather than Moore, but there is no proof that Livingston himself ever claimed authorship, nor has any record ever been found of any printing of the poem with Livingston's name attached to it, despite more than 40 years of searches.

Evidence in favor of Livingston

Advocates for Livingston's authorship argue that Moore "tried at first to disavow" the poem. [15] They also posit that Moore falsely claimed to have translated a book. [16] Document dealer and historian Seth Kaller has challenged both claims. Kaller examined the book in question, A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, as well as many letters signed by Moore, and found that the "signature" was not penned by Moore, and thus provides no evidence that Moore made any plagiaristic claim. Kaller's findings were confirmed by autograph expert James Lowe, by Dr. Joe Nickell, the author of Pen, Ink & Evidence, and by others. According to Kaller, Moore's name was likely written on the book by a New-York Historical Society cataloger to indicate that it had been a gift from Moore to the Society. [3] [17] [18]

Some contend that Henry Livingston Jr., not Moore, was the author of the poem Henry Livingston Jr.jpg
Some contend that Henry Livingston Jr., not Moore, was the author of the poem
Cover of a 1912 edition of the poem, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith Twas the Night Before Christmas - Project Gutenberg eText 17135.jpg
Cover of a 1912 edition of the poem, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith
The Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, reads The Night Before Christmas to the Little Scholars, December 2010 The Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, reads The Night Before Christmas to the Little Scholars, December 2010.jpg
The Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, reads The Night Before Christmas to the Little Scholars, December 2010

The following points have been advanced in order to credit the poem to Major Henry Livingston Jr.:

Livingston also wrote poetry primarily using an anapaestic metrical scheme, and it is claimed that some of the phraseology of A Visit is consistent with other poems by Livingston, and that Livingston's poetry is more optimistic than Moore's poetry published in his own name. But Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his Battle for Christmas that the poem could have been a social satire of the Victorianization of Christmas. Furthermore, Kaller claims that Foster cherry-picked only the poems that fit his thesis and that many of Moore's unpublished works have a tenor, phraseology, and meter similar to A Visit. Moore had even written a letter titled "From Saint Nicholas" that may have predated 1823.

Foster also contends that Moore hated tobacco and would, therefore, never have depicted Saint Nicholas with a pipe. However, Kaller notes, the source of evidence for Moore's supposed disapproval of tobacco is The Wine Drinker, another poem by him. In actuality, that verse contradicts such a claim. Moore's The Wine Drinker criticizes self-righteous, hypocritical advocates of temperance who secretly indulge in the substances which they publicly oppose, and supports the social use of tobacco in moderation (as well as wine, and even opium, which was more acceptable in his day than it is now).

Foster also asserts that Livingston's mother was Dutch, which accounts for the references to the Dutch Sinteklaes tradition and the use of the Dutch names "Dunder and Blixem". Against this claim, it is suggested by Kaller that Moore – a friend of writer Washington Irving and member of the same literary society – may have acquired some of his knowledge of New York Dutch traditions from Irving. Irving had written A History of New York in 1809 under the name of "Dietrich Knickerbocker." It includes several references to legends of Saint Nicholas, including the following that bears a close relationship to the poem:

And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream,and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country; and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.

Washington Irving, A History of New York [19]

MacDonald P. Jackson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has spent his entire academic career analyzing authorship attribution. He has written a book titled Who Wrote "the Night Before Christmas"?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question, [20] published in 2016, in which he evaluates the opposing arguments and, for the first time, uses the author-attribution techniques of modern computational stylistics to examine the long-standing controversy. Jackson employs a range of tests and introduces a new one, statistical analysis of phonemes; he concludes that Livingston is the true author of the classic work.

Musical adaptations

The poem has been set to music by composer Ken Darby (1909–1992) [21] and by British child composer Alma Deutscher (b. 2005). [22]

Original copies

'Twas the night before Christmas (credit: New-York Historical Society) A Visit From St. Nicholas, by Clement C Moore.jpg
'Twas the night before Christmas (credit: New-York Historical Society)

Four hand-written copies of the poem are known to exist and three are in museums, including the New-York Historical Society library. [23] The fourth copy, written out and signed by Clement Clarke Moore as a gift to a friend in 1860, was sold by one private collector to another in December 2006. It was purchased for $280,000 by an unnamed "chief executive officer of a media company" who resides in New York City, according to Dallas, Texas-based Heritage Auctions which brokered the private sale. [24]

See also

Related Research Articles

Donald Wayne Foster is a professor of English at Vassar College in New York. He is known for his work dealing with various issues of Shakespearean authorship through textual analysis. He has also applied these techniques in attempting to uncover mysterious authors of some high-profile contemporary texts. As several of these were in the context of criminal investigations, Foster was sometimes labeled a "forensic linguist". He has been inactive in this arena, however, since Condé Nast settled a defamation lawsuit brought against one of his publications for an undisclosed sum in 2007.

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<i>Twas the Night Before Christmas</i> (1974 TV special) 1974 film by Arthur Rankin, Jr.

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The Night Before Christmas may also refer to:

Henry Livingston Jr. American farmer, revolutionary officer, justice of the peace, and poet

Henry Beekman Livingston Jr. has been proposed as being the uncredited author of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, more popularly known as The Night Before Christmas. Credit for the poem was taken in 1837 by Clement Clarke Moore, a Bible scholar in New York City, nine years after Livingston's death. It was not until another twenty years that the Livingston family knew of Moore's claim, and it was not until 1900 that they went public with their own claim. Since then, the question has been repeatedly raised and argued by experts on both sides.

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'Twas the Night Before Christmas is a Christmas television special loosely inspired by the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore. It first aired December 7, 1977 on ABC. Directed by Tim Kiley, it stars Paul Lynde, Anne Meara, Martha Raye, and Alice Ghostley.

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Twas the Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century, published by Pamela McColl's Grafton and Scratch Publishing in 2012, is a smoke-free version of the classic poem attributed to Clement C. Moore. The book has been translated and published in four different languages.

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  2. Restad, Penne L. (1995). Christmas in America. Oxford University Press. p. 48. ISBN   0-19-509300-3.
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  5. Mann, Ted. "Ho, Ho, Hoax," Scarsdale Magazine, 30 November 2006
  6. 1 2 "Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748–1828) Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" Archived 15 December 2005 at the Wayback Machine , Representative Poetry Online
  7. Lowe, James. "A Christmas to Remember: A Visit from St. Nicholas." Autograph Collector. January 2000. 26–29.
  8. Nickell, Joe. "The Case of the Christmas Poem." Manuscripts, Fall 2002, 54;4:293–308; Nickell, Joe. "The Case of the Christmas Poem: Part 2." Manuscripts, Winter 2003, 55;1:5–15.
  9. Weise, Arthur James. Troy's One Hundred Years (Troy, NY, 1891), 97.
  10. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 345 fn 85.
  11. The New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin 2.4 (January 1919): 111–15.
  12. Patterson, Samuel White. The Poet of Christmas Eve (New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co, 1956), 17.
  13. Letter from N. Tuttle to Clement Clarke Moore. 1844. Museum of the City of New York. 54.331.17b
  14. New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin 2.4 (January 1915): 111.
  15. Christoph, Peter. "Clement Moore Revisited". Major Henry Livingston Jr., the author of "Night Before Christmas". Intermedia Enterprises. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 19 April 2008.
  16. Kirkpatrick, David D. (26 October 2000). "Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem". The New York Times . Archived from the original on 10 April 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2008.
  17. Kaller, Seth. "The Moore Things Change...," The New-York Journal of American History, Fall 2004
  18. Lowe, James. "A Christmas to Remember: A Visit from St. Nicholas," Autograph Collector, January 2000, pp. 26–29
  19. Washington Irving (1868). A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty;[...]. G.P. Putnam and Son, 661 Broadway. p. 144.
  20. Jackson, MacDonald P. (2016). Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question. McFarland. ISBN   978-1476664439.
  21. UofUtahSingers, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas – University of Utah Combined Choirs , retrieved 13 December 2018
  22. AlmaDeutscher, The Night before Christmas – music by Alma Deutscher , retrieved 13 December 2018
  23. "A Visit from St. Nicholas". New-York Historical Society. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  24. "Copy of Poem Sold; 'Twas Worth $280K". The Washington Post . Associated Press. 19 December 2006. Retrieved 19 April 2008.

Further reading