‘Twas a mystery: Who wrote ‘Night Before Christmas’ poem?

Mysteries
Night before Christmas

Editor’s note: This is our final Christmas mystery of the year. If you missed the others, find them here. Look for our story on Christmas Day about disturbing traditions.


MYSTERY WIRE — Observe one of the beloved traditions of Christmas Eve tonight by settling in front of the fireplace and reading aloud to your children, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

OK, OK. Call it up on YouTube and squeeze it into one of your kids’ Minecraft breaks. (Like they have breaks, right?)

The poem, originally known as “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” probably isn’t your tradition, but did you know there’s a dispute about who actually wrote it all those years ago?

Call it a mystery — our last “Christmas mystery” of 2019.

So before you nestle in for the night, with sugarplum dreams stuck in your head — note to self, Google “sugarplum,” because, what is that? — it’s time to learn a little about ancient Christmas history.

Clear back in the 1820s, a New York newspaper called the Troy Sentinel published the poem, which was submitted anonymously.

Fast forward to 1844, when Clement Clarke Moore included “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in a collection of poems, published with his name on it.

Family members of Henry Livingston, Jr., began a campaign to give credit to him after stories circulated and several people began to remember the poem from years earlier.

Many of those stories were proven false, but linguistic forensics used by Vassar College Professor Don Foster suggests that Livingston really did write the poem. Foster’s book in 2000, “Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous,” argues that Moore’s misstep when copying the poem two decades after it was published tells the true story.

Moore referred to two of the reindeer as “Donder and Blitzen.” The poem published by the Troy Sentinel said “Dunder and Blixem.” The early account shows Dutch lineage in the language, which fits with Livingston’s profile.

That’s not the end of the story. If you are intrigued and you want to learn more, read the detailed counterargument posted by Seth Kaller:

“Who was the real author of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ “

But if you’ve heard enough for now, don’t forget to set out some cookies for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer.

Merry Christmas!

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