One of the more romantic notions associated with Santa Claus and Christmas comes in the form of an early 19th century poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas.
As the legend goes, college professor and devout church man Clement Clarke Moore was out delivering Christmas turkeys on a snowy Christmas Eve at the behest of his wife when he composed a poem to present to his children later that evening before they went to bed.
Using the snowy elements surrounding him and the image of his rotund, jolly sleigh driver who accompanied him, Moore was inspired to compose the poem of Santa’s visit that would one day craft the very image of the modern Santa.
The poem was submitted to a New York newspaper anonymously in 1823, mostly because Moore didn’t want to have the dignity of his academic reputation sullied by what he called “a mere trifle”.
To his surprise and that of his family, the poem was picked up by other newspapers and then, later, magazines, who reprinted the poem every holiday season – a 19th century version of a hit Christmas single, you could say.
But by the time Moore was dead and long after it was established as a staple of the Christmas season debate has raged over who wrote the poem in the first place.
That Moore was no writer has never been in dispute. He was, however, a student of ancient languages, a professor of Oriental and Greek literature, and a devout Christian who studied theology and Biblical history. He was married with a large family and famously celebrated Christmas each year, a fact some historians take as remarkable considering what they say were the holiday traditions of New Yorkers at the time.
But living in the state of New York during those same years was a published author by the name of Henry Livingston, Jr.
Livingston was 30 years older than Moore – a simple fact that gets lost in the later heat of debate concerning the authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas.
Livingston was a young married farmer and a new father as the American Revolution got under way. But the twin tragedies of losing a child and then his wife caused Livingston to board out the rest of his children and take up art and poetry. His talents with these pursuits were good enough that they were later published in New York Magazine and the Poughkeepsie Journal, though many of his works, especially his art, was published anonymously.
A few years later Livingston remarried and had a large second family. It was to the children of this family that Livingston evidently presented this same poem in 1808 – some 15 years before it was published, anonymously, in a New York newspaper.
In the year 2000 linguistic researcher Don Foster, a professor of English at Vassar, published an exhaustive study of the writing style of both Moore and Livingston, famously concluding that there is no way that Moore’s staid style could have produced A Visit from St. Nicholas.
The poem was much more reminiscent of Livingston, an analysis that would back the claims of the Livingston children and grandchildren dating back to the 1870s.
The debate is actually a very old one.
The first time in print that Moore is credited as the author of the poem appears in a book published in 1837 – 14 years after the poem first met the public eye.
By 1837 Livingston had been dead nearly a decade and Moore was at the pinnacle of his storied career.
However, the book that published the poem was written by a close friend of Moore’s – and there is nothing that predates it’s publication that clearly substantiates Moore as the author.
In later years, now free from worries of what he considered a childish piece of work that could affect his career, Moore claimed the poem and told the story of how it was created.
The Livingston family vehemently denies Moore’s authorship. When it became clear in 1859 that Moore was finally claiming the work was his, the Livingston family organized their family history to prove the work actually belonged to Henry Livingston.
Around 1807, Henry’s sons Charles and Edwin remembered their father’s reading the poem to them as his own.
Following their father’s death in 1828, Charles claimed to have found a newspaper copy of the poem in his father’s desk, and son Sidney claimed to have found the original handwritten copy of the poem with its original crossouts.
The handwritten copy of the poem was passed from Sidney, on his death, to his brother Edwin.
However, the same year that the family discovered Moore’s claim of authorship, Edwin claimed to have lost the original manuscript in Livingston’s hand in a house fire in Wisconsin.
By 1879, five separate lines of Henry’s descendants had begun to correspond among themselves, trying to compare their family stories in the hope that someone had some proof that could be brought forward, but there was no documentation beyond family stories.
In 1899, even without proof, Sidney’s grandson published the first public claim of Henry’s authorship in his own newspaper on Long Island. The claim drew little attention.
But those claims were kept alive by yet another generation, this time in 1920 by Henry’s great grandson William Sturgis Thomas.
This work was published not only by a local historical society but it was also the basis for articles in major media publication the time, including the Christian Science Monitor. This exposure led to nearly 2 decades worth of media exposure questioning Moore’s claims of authorship.
Despite the lack of documentary evidence the claims of the Livingston family persist – even though Henry Livingston himself never said he created the work and no contemporaries of his or in journals that survive those generations make mention of the poem in the context of Henry Livingston.
As debate raged anew with the publishing of Foster’s work in 2000, documents expert and historian Seth Kaller responded in 2004 with an exhaustive rebuttal of both Foster’s research and the claims of the Livingston family, including an exhibition of a signed copy of the poem in Moore’s hand, one of four known to be in existence.