Literary forensics and “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

Jeremy noted the traditions that came from the Old World to America and influenced our modern understanding of Santa Claus and his darker helpers.  Clement Clarke Moore is considered the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published anonymously in 1923.  This is the beloved poem that many of us can recite from memory that we now call “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

It’s significant that the author, a wealthy minister and New Yorker published the poem anonymously and did not claim authorship until 1938.  In his book Author Unknown (published 2000)English professor and forensic linguist Donald Foster made the case that the poem was authored by Henry Livingston, Jr.  Descendants of Henry Livingston, Jr., a gentleman poet of Dutch decent who lived in Poughkeepsie, NY, claim the poem for their ancestor,  but its author was already dead when Moore took credit.  Those relatives solicited Foster’s help because Foster has a reputation for being a literary sleuth.  Early in his career, Foster identified a previously unknown poem as Shakespeare’s, and, even though that claim has since been refuted, Foster has been involved in other, more recent literary puzzles, including in 1996 helping to solve the mystery of the anonymous author of the political best-seller Primary Colors.

The argument about Livingston’s authorship is convincing and detailed.  I have included links to two documents supporting the Livingston authorship.  A lot of the discussion has to do with the origins of the names of two of the reindeer, Donner and Blitzen (which mean Thunder and Lightening in German).  The original spellings were Dunder and Blixsem.  Here are two links that explain Livington’s claims and the names of the reindeer. When I sing the song, I have incorrectly said Donder, and now I know why.  The updated 1837 published version of the Moore/Livingston poem uses the spelling Donder while the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” poem updates the name to Donner.

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