Who wrote “The Night Before Christmas?”
December 21, 2015
The two gentlemen travelers of back roads and byways warmed their icicle-y fingers over the fire in the oil drum. It was the mid 1930s and the season of Christmas in this upstate New York alleyway, where they had staked a hanging-out spot. Their collected pile of burnable trash would keep the fire going.
“Tramps, hobos, bums, what would you prefer us to be called George?” Frankie posed this question to his long-time traveling companion.
“I will take any of the titles, Frankie, as long as it ain’t panhandler, for we aren’t that, now are we?” This was George’s reply.
“No siree. Those we aren’t. We work when we can find the work, even though it is pretty slim pickings, as you well know. I am sorry we weren’t able to complete our plans to fly south for the winter, like birds. That would have made our lives so much easier, but we’ll make do ‘til we can, now won’t we?” Frankie knew it was important to remain cheerful.
Agents of the railroad security network had prevented them from hopping any trains for over a month. The security agents were out in full force for the first time in years. Could this mean a change was coming across the land?
“Speaking of panhandlers, don’t look now, but here comes one,” Frankie whispered to his pal. They watched as the downtrodden man in rags approached. He was holding his prop, a tin cup.
“You fellers mind if I warm my hands a bit over your fire?”
They nodded toward him as he placed his tin cup on the ground.
The panhandler continued talking. “The main reason I whizzed by was to let you know their will be dinner available on Christmas day at the Mission. Times are so hard they say they can’t promise turkey and dressing for everyone, but there will be plenty of tasty food. I am getting the word out where I can.”
“Why thank you, sir,” Frankie replied. “You can count on seeing us there, with bells on, nacherly. My appointment book is free of other engagements. How about you, George?”
“Oh yes. I will be there,” George answered. “Thank you for the information, pal. I will be getting my bow tie ready.”
The panhandler rubbed his hands together briskly over the fire then he pulled a newspaper from inside his jacket and put it on the pile of trash. “Here is some more fuel for your fire.” He picked up his empty tin cup and was on the move toward a busy street corner.
Frankie was curious about the newspaper. He walked over and pulled it off the pile of trash. He became lost in the words of The Record.
“Be sure to save me any stock market quotes,” George called over to his friend. “I need to keep an eye on my holdings.”
Frankie laughed. “Say here is a good mystery.”
“What? Tell me about it when you feel like it. I love a good mystery,” George urged his friend. “We have some good entertainment, at last, and it is free.”
“Hmm. Well, I’ll be jiggered. Well, don’t that beat all? I never had any idea.” Frankie voiced these mysterious mumblings aloud, as he read silently.
“What? It must be good. Don’t keep me in suspense all day, man.”
“It seems that long before this newspaper, The Record, was in print, there was a little bi-weekly newspaper called The Troy Sentinel. It existed in the early 1800s, long, long ago and contained advertisements, general interest stories and court proceedings. The story I am reading is about something that was published in this old bi-weekly. One day they received an anonymous poem in the mail. They published some poetry from time to time, so they went ahead and published this Christmas poem on December 23, 1823. It was called A Visit from Saint Nicholas. They had already put some poems in that edition, so they had to sandwich this anonymous poem in between a marriage announcement and a how-to on removing honey from a beehive. Still, it was such a good poem that it got some attention, but no one had any idea at all who even wrote it. They asked the poet to come forward, but no one claimed authorship—for several years, anyway.”
“Then what happened?” George was more than curious by now. He had even forgotten how cold he was for a moment in time.
“Thirteen years later Clement Clarke Moore, a poet and professor decided that he would step up. He realized that his housekeeper had sent it to the newspaper without his knowledge, he said. He had written it on a scrap of paper for his own children’s amusement. In 1844, he decided to put it in an anthology of his own poetic works.”
“I think you are going to tell me there is some hitch to this story,” George interjected.
“Right you are!” Frankie continued. “When the family of Henry Livingston, Jr. got wind of this development they came out of the woodwork and admitted that their father, Henry, had recited this same poem to them fifteen years before it was published in The Sentinel. Four of the Livingston children and a neighbor girl said, in fact, that Henry had recited this poem to them as early as 1807, and they could have proven it if the Livingston house had not burned down. In the house had been the original handwritten copy that Henry had made, along with corrections he made in the margins and the date entered at the top.”
“Aw, that is awful, Frankie—their proof went up in flames.”
“Yes it is more than sad, George. There are literary experts that offer excellent reasons for either Moore or Livingston to be the true author. The Livingston scholars say that he has used some phrases in the poem that seem to be Dutch in origin. Livingston had a largely Dutch background by way of his Dutch mother. Until there is a way to prove that Livingston actually wrote it, a high probability, Moore will continue to be given the credit.”
“It was so long ago, Frankie. It would be hard to prove in this day and age. Is the actual poem you telling me about in the paper you are reading? Could you read it to me? My eyesight is not that good, you know, or I would read it myself. You have got me very curious.”
Frankie began: “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”
He paused for a moment because he could not help observing a big tear sliding down George’s wrinkly cheek when he recognized the words. Frankie’s own eyes began to well up, for they had both once been young boys in warm houses, houses with oiled furniture and piping hot delicious food served three times a day. They had been boys who had written scrawl-y notes to Santa Claus, themselves, expressing their most heartfelt dreams of Christmas joy. Sometimes they had even gathered around the Christmas Eve fireplace and listened to older family members recite ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ the title we have come to know the poem by. For the most part Saint Nick had delivered what the young boys and their siblings had asked for. But that was long, long ago, in a faraway place.
* * *
Author’s Note: We still don’t know who wrote this well-loved poem. It contains the reindeer names “Donner and Blitzen” which are probably from the Old Dutch “dunder” and “blixem” and the newer Dutch, “donder” and “bliksem.” This translates as” thunder and lightning,” in case you didn’t know. Those in the Livingston camp point this out as part of their reasoning. Moore was a fan of Washington Irving, an author who was also fond of Dutch terms. Those in Moore’s camp are equally as eager to point this out. Moore may actually have believed he wrote it, but his memory was not reliable after a few years elapsed. As many of us often do, we find scraps of paper with scribbles and wonder if we authored those lines ourselves, or if we were trying to remember something we have read, liked, and wanted to remember. The mystery continues.
Sara Marie Hogg’s latest book is Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained. It would make a fascinating Christmas gift.