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Illustration by F.O.C. Darley

Illustration by F.O.C. Darley

A Visit From Saint Nicholas

‘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!
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,

This charming Christmas poem may have been the longest poem that we memorized as children. The rhythm is as enchanting as the lore behind the story. It is embedded in Christmas Eve tradition around the world. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written in rhyming anapests, the meter suited for the whimsy of the magical visit. The vivid descriptions became the foundation for the modern day interpretations of Santa Claus.

“A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” later known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” originally appeared anonymously on Dec. 23, 1823 by Mr. Orville Holley, publisher of the Troy Sentinel newspaper in upstate New York. Other publications picked up the poem and reprinted it into Christmas tradition.

Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship of the Christmas classic thirteen years after the poem was first published. One account has it that he composed the poem in his mind while shopping, recited it to dinner guests, one of which wrote the poem down after the dinner and presented his transcription to Mr. Holley for publication. Another account claims that Mr. Moore’s housekeeper submitted the poem without his knowledge. Either way, his claim of authorship was accepted and he included the poem in an anthology of his work in 1844.

Mystery solved, or was it?

The children of Henry Livingston, Jr. came forward and claimed that their father wrote this poem and had been reciting it to them for many years, as long as fifteen years before it was published. Their childhood friends remembered his recitals and collaborated the family’s story. They cited that they once owned the original copy of the poem, to include revisions, but lost it in a house fire.

Clement Clarke Moore was born in New York City, the only child of Reverend Benjamin Moore and Charity Clarke Moore. He attended Columbia College and graduated at the top of his class. Moore, a very religious man, was professor at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea Square from 1823 – 1850. He married Catharine Elizabeth Taylor in 1813 and together, they had nine children.

Henry Livingston Jr. was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1748. He was a farmer, surveyor, Justice of the Peace and Major in the Revolutionary Army. His daughter, Catherine, inspired his first known poem. Livingston wrote many poems following the death of his wife. Although he was a published poet, most of his poems were published anonymously or under the simple pseudonym R.

This Christmas Mystery is a cold case. Scholars and literary investigators have compared the poem to the writing styles of both authors and in most cases, conclude that circumstantial evidence would place author credit to Livingston. His demonstrated poetic voice and Dutch ancestry pair well with the anapestic meter of the poem, the names of the reindeer and vivid descriptions in the poem. That said, there is no evidence to tarnish the good name of Moore, the man who first came forward to claim author credit. Why would a devout man claim poetry that was not his?

With all of the magic around the season, is it possible that in the middle of the night while children and mice were sleeping, a little elf whispered the same poem in the ears of two poets in hopes that one would share with the believers of the world. Maybe the true author is a rotund northern toymaker with a great fondness for cookies and milk.

Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights and this look at a Christmas favorite.

In the words of my favorite elf, Happy Christmas to all and to all, a good night.


Confluence Collaborative Essays, All About “A Visit from St. Nicholas 
Poetry Foundation