"'Twas the Night Before Christmas," which first appeared anonymously on December 23, 1823 in a Troy, New York newspaper, The Sentinel, is undoubtedly one of the most influential sources for the modern image of Santa Claus.
Before 1820, Americans typically viewed Saint Nicholas as thin, stern, and bishop-like in appearance, dispensing discipline to children as often as gifts, and even in those cases, not necessarily on Christmas Eve. Perhaps most significantly, the team of eight reindeer was not present in any accounts prior to the publication of this poem.
The original 1823 text reads as follows:
Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,
And Mama in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap --
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys--and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight --
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
For more than 150 years, this poem was ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a wealthy Manhattan Biblical scholar from a distinguished gentry family. Although published anonymously, the poem quickly gained widespread popularity through word of mouth and republication, but for many years the author remained unknown. Then in 1837, Moore's friend Charles Fenno Hoffman claimed that Moore was the author, although Moore initially denied it. Finally in 1844, more than 20 years after the poem's initial publication, Moore stepped forward at the urging of family and friends and claimed authorship, reluctantly including it in a collection with his other, much more serious poetry, while deriding the poem as a "mere trifle."
A popular myth soon developed to the effect that Moore composed the poem in his head while on a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village, supposedly drawing inspiration for the elfin, pot-bellied St. Nick of the poem from the portly Dutchman who drove his sleigh that evening.
With a confessed author in hand the case seemed closed, and the legend perpetuated for a century and a half, with millions of children following somewhat-less-than-ancient Christmas traditions and learning from parents and teachers that they had Clement Clarke Moore to thank.
Until 2000. That year, Vassar College English Professor Don Foster, already a legendary "literary slueth," who among other exploits, claimed William Shakespeare was the true author of the anonymous poem "A Funeral Elegy" and correctly identified the journalist Joe Klein as author of the novel Primary Colors, published a bombshell of an essay in his book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, in which he argued that the true author of the 1823 "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was not Clement Moore, but actually Henry Livingston Jr., a Poughkeepsie, New York poet of Dutch descent.
The argument for Livingston was not wholely new. Following Moore's 1844 confession of authorship, one of Livingston's daughters came forward and claimed that Livingston had originally penned the poem in 1808. Suffice to say, no one paid her much attention, nor could Livingston substantiate the claim, having inconveniently died back in 1828, and no original manuscript having been located. Nevertheless, Livingston's authorship remained a Livingston family tradition, and finally in 1999, some Livingston descendants convinced Foster to apply his talent to the case.
Employing a blend of close textual analysis, historical detective work, and computer analysis to compare the poem's wording and syntax to other works by the authors and their possible influences, Foster presented an argument so powerful that, despite being necessarily based on entirely circumstantial evidence, many sources now list Henry Livingston Jr. as the author of the poem.
To begin with, Foster pointed out that the poem was unlike anything else Moore ever wrote. A pious, upstanding, scholarly man, whom Foster deems a classic curmudgeon, Moore, in his own words, condemned "immodest verse" with "no other recommendations than the glow of its expressions and the tinkling of its syllables, or the wanton allurement of the ideas that it conveys." In the poem, St. Nick gleefully enjoys a pipe, but elsewhere Moore had ranted against tobacco as "opium's treacherous aid." And in his writings, Moore advocated stern parenting for children, whom he referred to as annoyingly noisy "clamorish girls" and "boisterous boys," and in other Christmas poems to his own children he counseled them to be mindful, duteous, and aloof from transient pleasures.
The form of the poem seems to favor a Livingston atrribution as well. Whereas Livingston often wrote in the rollicking anapestic meter used in "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Moore only wrote a single poem in his life using anapests, "The Pig and the Rooster," moralizing about laziness and arrogance. Moreover, Foster identified numerous stylistic quirks shared by the poem and many of Livingston's other works, such as the overuse of exclamation marks and the odd usage of "all" as an adverb, such as "all through the house," "all snug in their beds" and "dressed all in fur." Another example is the uncommon phrase "Happy Christmas," frequently found in Livingston's writings, which was later changed to the more standard "Merry Christmas" by Moore when he included the poem in his collection.
On the history side, Foster discovered a letter Moore wrote to the owner of Troy Sentinel just before he stepped forward as the author, requesting to know if anyone could remember who submitted the poem in an apparent effort to make sure the coast was clear (nobody could remember, so he was safe), and Foster even found a different Christmas poem, "Old Santeclaus," published anonymously in an 1821 pamphlet, which he argues has numerous markings of Moore's work, such as frequent use of of the word "dread," an overreliance on the adjective "various" and an unusual use of the passive form "seen," and four stanzas to devoted to castigating naughty children. It was this poem, Foster argues, which Moore's friend Charles Fenno Hoffman must have misremembered in 1837.
By the way, where the heck did all those wacky reindeer come from? Foster, who has the annoying habit of having an answer for everything, notes that Livingston's other poems teem with flying children, animals, fairies, boats and other vehicles, like Santa's flying sleigh and reindeer, and that Livingston thought of himself as an expert on the Arctic and wrote elsewhere of Lapland's reindeer. Livingston also had previously written of the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was pulled by flying goats.
And finally, Livingston was Dutch. The legend of Saint Nicholas coming at Christmas was a Dutch legend, whereas the Germans waited for Kriss Kringle. The original spelling in the 1823 Sentinal poem for the last two reindeer was "Dunder" and "Blixem" - Dutch spellings of Dutch words for "thunder" and "lightning." But in a version of the poem that Moore wrote out by hand later in life, he wrote more German "Donder" and "Bitzen," directly following a printer's error! Tellingly, Moore knew German, but not Dutch.
The New York Times. "Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on the Authorship of an Iconic Christmas Poem." October 26, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/featured_articles/001027friday.html
"The Night Before Christmas: Behind the Fiction." http://www.myshelf.com/behindthefiction/02/nightbeforechristmas.htm
"Clement Clarke Moore: The Reluctant Mythmaker" http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/weekly/aa121097.htm
Blackdog.net "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." http://www.blackdog.net/holiday/christmas/twas.html
For an interesting counterperspective, see http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/cp/vol-01/no-02/moore/index.shtml