My coffee club guys met at the house recently all bristly and excited
about Christmas……well, as excited and full of the Christmas spirit as men in
their 70’s can be! This meeting we
decided to forgo the usual cups of coffee and instead sipped on delicious Evan
Williams Eggnog to really put us in the spirit of the season.
round of libations the discussions centered on Christmas and our shared memories
of long ago while comparing those days to present day; if such a thing can be
After sprinkling a generous amount of Nutmeg atop his eggnog, Mason
returned from the kitchen, settled in the rocker in the den close to the tree,
and posed a question to the group. “What makes Christmas, well…you know,
This is not a question that can be answered by one specific definition.
Sure, we all have our special memories of Christmas which involve
hallowed traditions of church, family, friends, decorating the house and tree,
buying gifts and sharing holiday gatherings along with other memories of years
and decades gone by.
The guys chimed in with their memories, all sharing similar stories of
growing up, trying to be on our best behavior this time of year, peeking around
the corners of buildings, looking out the windows into the yards to see if we
could catch a glimpse of a rotund man with a white beard and red suit maybe with
a list in his hand checking either the naughty or nice column. We exchanged
stories of the mounting excitement that coursed through our veins the beginning
of December, finding it hard to concentrate on school work thinking about Santa,
awaiting the arrival of the Christmas tree at our homes and the excitement of
decorating it resulting in the presents which would soon appear under the tree.
agreed first and foremost Christmas centers around the birth of Jesus and the
beauty associated with the Bethlehem story.
The other traditions spread from there encompassing the memories we share
now as old men enjoying the still brilliant glow of what made Christmas such a
special holiday for us.
Being the die-hard traditionalist I am, I am finding it more difficult to
sustain these memories of 70 plus years of Christmases and the traditions which
warm my soul in light of today’s world of cyberspace, trying to undermine
& revise what we oldsters consider sacred in light of today’s modern
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is climbing to the attic and
opening up the bins of Christmas books I have accumulated. I go through each bin
selecting the books to bring down for the season. My favorites, which always
seem to be in the mix for each year, are the ones where reminiscing of
Christmases long past are front and center.
Reading through these volumes takes me back, to my childhood where I can
again relive many of the memories Christmas time made so special for me.
I am quickly learning having instant access to “everything on the
web” can take away fantasy & beliefs for us. Take for instance an iconic
piece of Christmas lore, Clement Clarke Moore’s “T’was the Night Before
Christmas”. Untold thousands of
children and adults know and love this hallowed poem by heart and has become a
standard mantra at this season. While
reading my go-to book of Christmas miscellany, I discovered a disturbing fact:
that perhaps the Rev. Moore was not
the author of the poem as long thought but ownership was claimed to be American
Revolution veteran Henry Livingston, Jr.
After reading this disturbing tidbit, I began checking other sources to
see if there was any truth behind this claim. My research turned up that Henry
Livingston, Jr., born October 13, 1748 – February 29, 1828, has been proposed
as being the uncredited author of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas”.
Seems credit for the poem was taken in 1837 by Moore, a Bible scholar in
New York City, nine years after Livingston’s death.
This famous Christmas poem first appeared in the Troy Sentinel on
December 23, 1823. There seems to be
no question the poem came out of the home of Clement Moore, and the person
giving the poem to the newspaper, without Moore’s permission, certainly
thought the poem had been written by Moore.
Several of Livingston’s children, however, remember their father
reading that very poem to them fifteen years earlier.
In 1837, Charles Fenno Hoffman, a friend of Moore’s, put Moore’s name
on the poem and in 1844 Moore published the poem in his own book, “Poems”.
Later in his life Moore wrote out the poem by hand for his friends.
Because the poem was first published anonymously, various editions were
published with his name and without. It
was in 1859, 36 years after the poem first appeared that Livingston’s family
discovered Moore was taking credit for what they believed to be their father’s
poem. That belief went back many years according to family members.
Around 1807, Henry’s sons Charles and Edwin, remembered their father
reading this poem to them as his own creation.
Following their father’s death in 1828, Charles claimed to have located
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 at his death to
brother Edwin. But the same year the family discovered Moore’s claim of
authorship, Edwin claimed to have lost the original manuscript in a house fire
in Wisconsin where he lived with his sister Susan.
By 1879, five various lines
of Henry’s descendents began corresponding with each other, trying to compare
their family stories in the hopes someone had concrete proof that could be
brought forward, but there is 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, but
the claim drew little attention.
In 1920, Henry’s great grandson, William Sturgis Thomas, became
interested in the family stories and began collecting the memories and papers of
the existing descendants, finally publishing his research in the 1919 issue of
the Duchess County Historical Society yearbook.
Thomas provided the material to Winthrop P. Tryon for his article on the
subject in the Christian Science Monitor’s August 4, 1920 issue.
Later, Moore’s descendants arranged to have an elderly family relative,
Maria Jephson O’Connor, deposed on her memories of Moore’s claim of
On independent grounds, Donald Wayne Foster, Professor of English at
Vassar College, argues Livingston is more likely the author of the poem than
Foster’s claim has been countered by document dealer and historian Seth
Kaller, who once owned one of Moore’s original manuscripts of the poem. Kaller
has offered a point-by-point rebuttal of Foster’s findings supported by the
work of autograph expert James Lowe & Dr. Joe Nickell. New England scholar
MacDonald P. Jackson invested a year of research, analyzing the poetry of both
men and his conclusion states, “Every test, so far applied, associates “The
Night Before Christmas” much more closely with Livingston’s verse than with
Moore’s.” There is no proof that
Livingston ever claimed authorship nor has any record been found of any printing
of the poem with Livingston’s name attached to it.
So we remain in a conundrum of sorts as to who was the real author of a
poem every single person equates with Christmas Eve. Regardless of the author,
it has stood the test of time and remains a nostalgic, beloved and honored relic
for 194 Christmases and will remain so for generations of children to discover
and love anew.
My Christmas wish for each of you is to continue to love, remember and
appreciate the long-held memories and traditions and all that is wonderful and
magical about this season of good cheer.