Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: Christmas controversy

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.”

So begins the familiar poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas” that some believe took St. Nicholas out of his European tradition and led to the modern creation of Santa Claus, that ‘jolly old elf’ with his reindeer and sleigh full of presents.

The poem first appeared in a newspaper in Troy, New York, in 1823 without an author’s name. But in 1837, a friend gave credit to Clement Clarke Moore, a New York religious scholar and poet. At first, Moore refused the attribution, thinking the poem too frivolous. Finally in 1844, he included it in a book of poetry, thereby claiming authorship. Interestingly his other rather “frosty” verse is long forgotten.

But could the iconic poem have been heard in Allentown long before?

Though the mice may not be stirring in that Christmas house of yore, scholars inspired by the long-held tradition of New York’s Livingston family - some of whose members occupied Trout Hall back in the 1820s, 30s and 40s when it was called the Livingston Mansion - certainly are. Although they tended to go to Philadelphia in the winters, perhaps it was read here by Walter Copake Livingston, who married into the Allen/Greenleaf family, before the holiday to their family of many children.

The Livingstons have long believed that the poem was written by one of their family members, Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) of Poughkeepsie, New York. Although no documents signed by Livingston exists saying, “Yes, I wrote it,” there are tantalizing arguments in his favor. And as respected an organization as the Poetry Foundation attributes the poem to Livingston on its website, noting, “Scholars today give the credit to Livingston.”

Henry Livingston Jr., while far from the best-known member of the Livingston family, played an important role in his community’s history. He was from the start a member of a family that owned vast acres of land. One hundred years after Livingston’s birth, the farmers on the property owned by his relatives rebelled against the colonial era laws that forced them, they felt, to live like serfs.

Livingston, however, liked to farm. Although big by Poughkeepsie standards, his farm, Locust Grove, was small by Livingston standards. He may not have often touched a plough with his own hands, but he did spend days overseeing planting and wrote poems about his love of the land.

Livingston was also a surveyor and held several public offices. He was on the committee that oversaw the sale of confiscated Tory property following the Revolution. In the early part of the Revolution, Livingston joined a patriot military expedition to Canada to seize it from the British. Its commander was killed, and it collapsed.

A gravely ill Livingston returned home. His bride that he married in 1774, Sarah Wells, had given birth to their first child, Catherine, just before he went to Canada. In 1776, the couple had a son, who died at the age of 14 months from a bad burn.

The next male child was given his name, Henry Wells Livingston. Tragedy struck Livingston again in 1783 when his wife died. It was in part a reaction to her death that he began to write poetry. He re-married in 1793 to Jane Patterson, with whom he was to have eight children. It was for them he is said to have written “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Livingston had his poems published in local publications. His children remembered first hearing the Christmas poem sometime between 1805 and 1807. It appeared first in the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel newspaper on Dec. 23, 1823, and as was Livingston’s practice, was submitted anonymously. It was not until 1837, after Livingston had then been dead for nine years, that Charles Fenno Hoffman, a friend of Moore’s, supposedly “outed” Moore by putting his name on the poem.

It was not until 1844 that the Moore published the poem as his own in a book of his poetry. But “A Visit from St Nicholas” continued to be published, often without attribution. It was not until 1859 and supposedly much to their horror, that Livingston’s children discovered Moore’s name on their father’s poem. According to the family story, Livingston’s hand-written version had been passed down to son, Edwin, when it was destroyed in a fire in his Wisconsin home. So, no proof.

Moore died in 1863. By then his reputation as the poem’s author had begun to set in literary concrete. Cartoonist Thomas Nast enlarged on the poem’s picture of St. Nicholas till he was Santa Claus.

Despite the best efforts of the family, who pooled all their memories of hearing the poem, no document could be found. In 1899, the first public claim was published by a grandson of Livingston’s children. It was largely ignored. By the 1930s Santa could be seen in magazines across the country, relaxing with a Coke after a long Christmas Eve present drop.

The struggle went on into the 20th century when other members of the Livingston family tried what they could. It was pointed out that Livingston’s mother was Dutch and thus was closer to the poem’s Dutch roots. They noted that the Dutch reindeer names “Dunder and Blixem” (thunder and lightning), a favorite expression of Livingston, was changed to the German, ”Donder and Blitzen” because Moore did not know Dutch but was fluent in German. Others even pointed out that Moore’s wife, a distant relative of Livingston, might have told her husband about the poem.

The Moore faction was not taking this lying down. They pointed out that Moore was close friends with author and Dutch folklorist Washington Irving, who had shared with him the story of St. Nicholas and the Dutch legends about him. Some created position papers blasting the Livingston defenders, point by point. Someone else pointed out that it was an editor of a poetry book who changed the reindeer’s “nationality,” not Moore.

In the 21st century Professor Donald Foster of Vassar took up the sword for Livingston. On the opposite side was Seth Kaller, a document dealer and historian. Kaller went so far to hire a writing expert to prove Moore was clearly the author.

The most recent research was done last year by Professor MacDonald P. Jackson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and member of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Using computational stylistics and author-attribution techniques, he claims science clearly shows Livingston is the author by a landslide.

So, as somebody once wrote, “Merry Christmas to All And to All A Good Night!”

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