I must admit I had never heard of any controversy surrounding the authorship of The Night Before Christmas (also known as A Visit from St. Nicholas) until I bumped into Professor Emeritus MacDonald P. Jackson at a book launch some months ago. I remember Mac as one of my lecturers in English at the University of Auckland forty-odd years ago. He was the man who trained us in Bibliography and got us to fold bits of paper so that we would know the difference between a folio and a quarto and a duodecimo. He now has an international reputation as a leading scholar in providing correct attributions for the authorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays and in working out how and by whom such plays were printed. It’s a matter of extremely close textual analysis, including statistical tabulations of the linguistic preferences of authors and of the typographical habits of printers. (Look up on this blog my fleeting reference to Mac in the review of James Shapiro’s ContestedWill.)Share
Now, Mac informed me, he had written a book on the Night Before Christmas problem.
I admitted my ignorance. Like most people I can quote the first two lines of this popular American poem (“ ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”) and I know the names of at least some of the reindeer drawing Santa’s sleigh (Dasher, Dancer, Comet, Vixen etc.) although apparently Donner and Blitzen were originally called something else. I also had a vague idea that this was the poem that set the template for popular depictions of Santa Claus - the jolly chap in the sleigh coming down the chimney to distribute presents. But there my knowledge ended. Maybe it’s because recitations and readings of the poem at Christmastime tend to be more an American tradition than a New Zealand one.
So Mac sent me a copy of his book and this is how it goes. Apparently the 56 lines of anapaestic rhyming couplets first appeared in an obscure New York newspaper the Troy Sentinel in 1823. (Thinking of it as poem from the Victorian era, I was surprised at how early it appeared). It was printed anonymously under the title Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas. No pre-publication manuscript of the poem survives. Only 14 years later, in 1837, was the poem attributed to the New York Professor (of Greek and Oriental Literature) Clement Clarke Moore, who allowed it to appear in his collected poems a few years later. Some circumstances did seem to attach it to Moore and the poem has continued to be attributed to him. There is even a popular legend about how he wrote it. But the descendants of another minor poet, Henry Livingston, have always claimed that the poem was really Livingston’s. Be it noted that Livingston died in 1828, before the poem was attributed to Moore (who died in 1863) and before Livingston could contest its appearance in Moore’s collected poems. (Read more.)