The preacher who did not write “The Night Before Christmas”

Many versions of The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore were available. That poem is as ubiquitous in this season of the year as decorated trees and jingling bells. But there is something vastly wrong with it.

That poem–also known as A Visit From Saint Nicholas–is said to be a fraud.

The evidence says Clement Clarke Moore did not write it.

First, a little background.

The September 2001 issue of “Smithsonian” magazine carried a fascinating article about a forensic linguist named Don Foster. Titled “Don Foster Has a Way With Words,” the article introduced this Vassar professor who is known for his detective abilities regarding works of literature.

This same Professor Don Foster proved that Ted Kaczynski wrote the Unabomber Manifesto. He identified Joe Klein as the “anonymous” author of “Primary Colors” a few years back, and he uncovered and established the authenticity of a Shakespeare elegy.

He does this by studying the wording of the written pieces–that is, the word choices, phrasing, and numerous other aspects of a document–and comparing it with known samples of the writings of various people. He then announces which of the suspects is the actual author.

I had to know more. So, I drove to our local library and checked out his book, “Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous” (published by Henry Holt, 2000).

This unassuming, bookish professor with a love for the written word made a fascinating discovery: No two people write in the same way. They do not use words in exactly the same combinations. They do not follow identical rules of punctuation and spelling.

No two adults in a family have read the same books.

Foster says, It is that pattern of difference in each writer’s use of language, and the repetition of distinguishing traits, that make it possible for a text analyst to discover the authorship of anonymous, pseudonymous, or forged documents.

Many veterans of law enforcement and the university classroom had known this, but Foster seems to know it better than anyone else.

He has taken it to the next level.

Don Foster found out who really wrote The Night Before Christmas.  And that it was not Clement Clarke Moore.  Not even close, he says.

Now, the encyclopedia says Clement Clarke Moore, a preacher in New York City, composed the poem for his six children in 1822. The problem is that for all these years, another family has claimed that their ancestor, Major Henry Livingston, Jr., actually wrote this little piece.

This much is known: The poem was first published in the “Sentinel” newspaper of Troy, New York, on December 23, 1823. That is not in dispute.

The first thing Don Foster did was to look at the personality traits of these two men. Preacher Moore, he says, was humorless, stern, moralistic, and “a man who never had a day of fun in his whole life.” In fact, “he was against it,” Foster says.

Livingston was a Dutch journalist, an artist, a flute player, a free spirit, and “an all-around merry old soul if ever there was one.” He delighted in entertaining children.

Foster says if Clement Clarke Moore wrote this happy bit of Christmas fun, it was the only light piece he produced in his entire life.

When Foster got his hands on the actual writings and personal records of both men, a pattern began to emerge.

The odd punctuation in the poem as originally printed in 1823 matched Livingston’s but not Moore’s writing habits. The phrases are consistent with material Livingston had read and borrowed from other authors, but not with anything he found concerning Moore.

Foster was coming to the conclusion that a fraud had been perpetrated.

Then, he found the smoking gun.

In the first printing of this poem in the Sentinel, two of the reindeer are called “Dunder and Blixem.” When Moore began to take credit for this Christmas piece in his 1844 book “Poems,” he changed the spelling to “Donder and Blitzen.” Therein lies the clue.

“Dunder and Blixem” are Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” They are exclamations of surprise or anger or delight among the Dutch.

Clement Clarke Moore knew German but not Dutch. Livingston was Dutch.

Foster concludes, “Moore’s corrupt ‘Blitzen’ is one more indication that he stole ‘Christmas’–Santa Claus, sleigh, reindeer, and all–from a portly rubicund Dutchman named Henry Livingston.” (I had to look up ‘rubicund.’ It refers to the tendency of a face to be red or ruddy, not unlike Santa himself.)

There it is.

The author of “The Night Before Christmas” was Henry Livingston, Jr. The books in your local store and on your shelves have it wrong. Clement Clarke Moore was a thief for claiming credit for the work of another.

Is it important?

Does it really matter who wrote the poem? Not to small children it doesn’t. And in the long run, since the poem is now in the public domain and presumably no one but the publishers are earning anything from it, it probably matters little to anyone.

However, if getting the facts straight and telling the truth matter, even in small ways, it counts.

If giving a man his due for work done well matters, it counts.

If identifying another hypocrite in history who wanted honor that was undeserved by him and owed to another, if that means anything, it counts.

It matters to me.

I am disgusted that the culprit in this story is a preacher.

Why would Clement Clarke Moore appropriate a children’s poem that another had written?

Not for money. He is said to have been one of the richest men of his day. He did not need the money.

It must have been about pride. He wanted honor he was not entitled to receive.

The fifth chapter of Acts tells what the Lord in Heaven thinks when His children exhibit such low ambitions. It is not a pretty story.

Mr. Moore would have done well to have thought through the Christmas story which we may assume he preached each year. The angels in Heaven sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest.”

He gets the glory. Only when we give Him all praise and honor does life work the way it was intended. When we get our values out of whack and start seeking glory for ourselves, nothing else goes the way it was intended.

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