Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Today in Literary History - A Visit From St. Nicholas is Published

On December 23, 1823, the Christmas classic, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published anonymously in the Troy, New York “Sentinel.” It wasn’t until twenty years had gone by that Clement C. Moore claimed and was accorded authorship. Recent research by forensic literary critic, Don Foster, the man who correctly identified the author of Primary Colors, has cast Moore’s authorship in doubt, however.

Clement Moore was a strait-laced biblical scholar, a man who was, by nature, stern, harsh, and dour. In Author Unknown, Foster’s collection of literary whodunits, published in 2000, he offers much evidence that Moore was not the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and that the true author was Henry Livingston, Jr.

Foster gives much of the “sleuthing credit” to Mary Van Deusen, who told Foster many stories of the Livingston children enjoying fireside readings of the now-famous poem at least fifteen years before its first newspaper publication, and Van Deusen also provided Foster with other Livingston lines, which, when compared with lines from “Moore’s” work, seem to indicate that Van Deusen and Foster are right.

We do know Moore wrote the following lines:

To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure.
For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice,
Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:
Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread....

And we know the following lines are typical of Livingston:

Such Gadding – such ambling – such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy – to sweet Willy's rout,
New Parties at coffee – then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major will dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea, and destroy bread and butter....

Foster also says that Moore checked to make sure no one else was going to claim authorship of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” before he did, and he speculates that Moore is actually the author of yet another, lesser known Christmas classic, “Old Santeclaus,” which is sometimes titled, “The Children’s Friend.” “Old Santeclaus” first appeared in print in 1821, two years before “A Visit From St. Nicholas, in a sixteen page publication that contains the first drawings of the jolly, fat man we know as “Santa” today. (Prior to that time, “Santa” was known as “Father Christmas” or “St. Nicholas” and in the European tradition, especially the German, he was a skinny, ill-fed, old man who lived in the forest.

"Old Santeclaus" begins jolly enough, but it soon takes a darker turn:

...Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Where e'er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother's ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent's hand to use
When virtue's path his sons refuse.

Seth Kaller is the man who currently owns the earliest known Moore manuscript of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and he does not agree with Foster. We leave it to you to make up your own mind:

And whatever you decide, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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