Santa Anapests

December 23: On this day in 1823, the Christmas classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly known as ” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel. Twenty years and much popularity later, Clement C. Moore claimed and was granted authorship, until the descendants of Henry Livingston Jr. found out about it. Their first protests were in 1859; and 150 years later the case is far from closed, the latest arguments against Moore coming from the forensic literary critic Don Foster. In Author Unknown, his 2000 collection of literary who-wrote-its, Foster concludes that Moore, a straitlaced biblical scholar, was too different a man to have created a Saint Nick, and too different a poet to have penned the rolling anapests of the famous poem.

Much of the evidence against Moore is circumstantial or anecdotal — testimonials from Livingston’s descendants claiming that, at least fifteen years before its first newspaper publication, they were gathering before the Christmas fire to hear Livingston read the poem to them. Perhaps more substantially, Foster compares the poetic style of the two poets; when typical lines from Moore’s poetry (excerpt 1 below) are placed beside typical lines from Livingston’s (excerpt 2), we seem to find the smoking pen:

To me ’tis giv’n your virtue to secure

From custom’s force and pleasure’s dangerous lure.

For if, regardless of my friendly voice,

In Fashion’s gaudy scenes your heart rejoice,

Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:

Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread….

Such Gadding — such ambling — such jaunting about!

To tea with Miss Nancy — to sweet Willy’s rout,

New Parties at coffee — then parties at wine,

Next day all the world with the Major will dine!

Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter

To guzzle bohea, and destroy bread and butter….

Foster also speculates that Moore may very well be the author of another, still-anonymous Christmas classic, “Old Santeclaus,” often titled “The Children’s Friend.” This poem first appeared in 1821 — two years before ” ‘Twas the Night” — in a sixteen-page publication that contains the first drawings of the Santa we now know. The poem offers drums and tarts to the good, and more than a lump of charcoal to the bad:

But where I found the children naughty,

In manners rude, in temper haughty,

Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,

Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,

Such as the dread command of God

Directs a Parent’s hand to use

When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

The most detailed recent rebuttal of Foster’s arguments has come from Seth Kaller, the man who owns the earliest extant Moore manuscript of the poem.