WHAT MAKES CHRISTMAS……CHRISTMAS?

 

                   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.

Our second 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 done.

          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, “Christmas”?

          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.

 We 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 technology.

          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 ownership.

          On independent grounds, Donald Wayne Foster, Professor of English at Vassar College, argues Livingston is more likely the author of the poem than Clement Moore.

          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.