By JAMES LIVINGSTON DENIG
The author of this article, who is the son of Col. and Mrs. Robert L. Denig, of the Portsmouth Navy Yard, is a direct descendant of Henry Livingston, the subject of the article.
The great majority of people, in fact nearly all those who have read the great Christmas poem, "The Night Before Christmas," attribute its authorship to Clement C. Moore, LLD. There are some, however, who do not share in this belief. They are of the Livingston clan, descendants of the Earl of Linlithgow in Scotland. In recent years there has come to light much evidence which indicates convincingly that Henry Livingston, not Clement C. Moore, was the originator of the famed ballad. Moore adherents have the advantage of time in their arguments, but the material which has been discovered discounts to a great part their claims.
The poem was apparently first published in the Troy, New York "Sentinel" on December 23, 1823. Its first title since shortened, was "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas". The lines were prefac ed by a note written by the Editor of the paper:
"We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of music - that homely and delightful personage of parental kindness, Santa Claus, his costume, and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the firesides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties: but from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it....."
Thus the first appearance of the poem is cloaked in a veil of mystery. The lines continued to appear unillustrated in the "Sentinel" until 1830, and on January 1, 1829 it appeared in the New York "Morning Courier." From 1830 to 1844 it evidently was not again printed until it appeared ina little volume entitled "Poems by Clement C. Moore, LLD." In the preface Dr. Moore speaks of an appreciation of the lighter things of life. This point is an important hinge upon which a great deal of the argument seems to hang. The two men, Livingston and Moore, had exactly opposite natures. The former was a humorist at heart and liked to express his good-naturedness in verse. The later, however, was a man of serious nature and was never reputed to be humorist. He had been trained for the church, was the founder of the General Theological Seminary, and served there as professor of Hebrew and Hellenic literature. Surely a man who compiled a "Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language" could not be expected to compose such a merry time as "The Night Before Christmas."
There are many versions as to how the poem reached the press, those advanced by the Livingston family being more plausible. Though varying in details the different versions seem to hang together in the main idea, that Livingston penned the poem for his children on Christmas morning. The story most often heard deals with a young lady who was stopping at the Livingston Manor at Christmas time. The tale states that Henry Livingston came downstairs to breakfast on Christmas day with the poem in his hand and proceeded to read it, adding that he had penned it the preceding night for his children. This first reading, about 1804 or 1805, proved so popular that the young lady went to the home of Dr. Moore to visit where she probably read it to the family. In this manner the piece was most likely inducted into the Moore collection. My grandmother once recounted the story that her grandmother while visiting Locust Grove in 1808 heard Henry Livingston read the balld to the assembled guests as his own. Numerous other similar testimonies bear out the same belief. Such tales have been handedd down through the Livingston family by word of mouth for nearly a hundred years. This fact alone indicates that the legend arose at about the same time as the little book of Moore's poems was published.
Aside from the various stories of the origin of this poem, there are other factors which provide more tangible evidence as to the real author of the ballad. The structure of the piece in question as compared with others written by the two men must be looked into. In this respect Henry Livingston's poetry stands the test better than Moore's.
Of the 44 pieces included in Dr. Moore's collection all but two of them are of iambic meter while "The NIght Before Christmas" is written in anapaestic meter. The two remaining poems of the group are in anapaestic, their titles being "The Night Before Christmas" and "The Pig and the Rooster." The latter is dated some years after the other is purported to have been written and is of much inferior theme than the Christmas ballad. In fact, the author's wit and imagination are laboriously brought out in a none too clever manner. Generally Moore's compositions have a line of moralization running through them which is accentuated by scholarly and eloquent writing.
On the other hand we have Henry Livingston's 45 metrical compositions, all of which are short and the greater majority humorous and jesting. Nineteen of the poems, or one-third, are anapaestic, the meter of the disputed poem. Major Livingston's favorite form of writing was the couplet system which is used through the Christmas ballad. He was also fond of repetition as these two excerpts will indicate, the first being taken from "The Night Before Christmas".
"To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
and the second from a letter in verse form written to his brother Beekman in 1786:
"Such gadding! Such ambling! Such jaunting about!"
Another habit which invariably showed in all his work was the use of the word "mamma" when referring to his wife. Such a usage is in "The Night Before Christmas" when he says:
"And mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap"
That particular line also suggests the fact that he often weaved into his poetry articles of clothing - shoes, gloves, cravats, and ruffles - just as in "The Night Before Christmas" mention is made of kerchiefs, caps, and stockings. Tininess appealed to him, and he wrote in one of his poems of a tiny royal coach made of a nutshell and drawn by two green katydids. Surely this is similar to "a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer" as described in "The Night Before Christmas".
Finally, Livingston was fond of such rhymes as "matter" and "clatter", "elf" and "myself", both of which appear in the Christmas poem. The following stanza taken from a carrier's address written by Livingston in 1787 further accentuates this.
"And now the end of all this clatter
Certainly with seven pieces of reputable evidence which have been proved it would not be wrong to suppose that Henry Livingston penned the poem that begins with the wrods "Twas the night before Christmas." Of course, it must be readily admitted that this wealth of evidence is entirely circumstantial and that the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the Livingston family. However, the presumptive evidence that Henry Livingston did write the poem seems as conclusive as that which has convicted innocent men and sent them to their deaths on the gibbets.
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