Don asked me to bring him exact-to-the-commas transcriptions of every published
variant of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," from the first publication in the Dec 23, 1823 Troy
Sentinel, to its publication in Moore's own book in 1844. "I'm especially interested in the
Blixen/Blitzen and Donder/Donner variants. There's probably a detailed bibliography available
somewhere of early reprints of Xmas."(2) Somewhere. That was the operative word.
Although Clement Moore is usually associated with New York City, where he lived and
worked, Moore also had a summer house in Newport, Rhode Island. And right behind that house
is the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. I made an appointment with Maris Humphreys, the
Head of Special Collections, and Rosemary Cullens, her assistant and the Curator of the Harris
Collection. With friend Gail Sabin in tow, I headed south.
The library is one of those magnificent old buildings paneled in dark wood and hung with
portraits. On that day their changing exhibit was hand-tied flies used for fly fishing. That
seemed appropriate. After all, I was there to fish for information! While Gail went off to take
pictures of old Newport architecture, I settled down to the copier and the pile of books that the
librarians were building up beside me. Among their treasures was a book donated and dedicated
to them by Moore, a copy of his biography of George Castriot. And, sure enough, there in the
pile was an exhibit catalog of early versions of the Christmas poem, which had been collected by
Anne Haigh. Now I knew where I could find most of what Don wanted in a single place.
Unfortunately, the place was Pittsburgh.
Early Moore researchers had noticed a change in the reindeer names between the 1823
Troy Sentinel's Dunder and Blixem, and the 1844 Moore's Donder and Blitzen.(3) The common
excuse given was that either the person who copied it from the Moore household, or the Troy
Sentinel's printer, had made an error which Moore corrected in his book.
But Don had a different theory of what might have happened. Starting with the
assumption that Moore didn't write the poem, though the poem did come out of Moore's
household, Don thought it possible that Moore wouldn't have bothered keeping a copy. If that
was the case, then when Moore wanted to include the poem in his book, he had to find a copy to
use as a source. To test this hypothesis, Don wanted to see if any of the changes between the
1823 version and Moore's version could be traced to an intermediate editor.
"Dunder and Blixem," the names of two of Santa's reindeer, weren't made up words but,
rather, a phrase that was to the early Dutch as "Great Scott!" was to our grandparents, or
"Damn!" is to our children. It was the way you conveyed strong feelings. At least it was if you
grew up in the burbs of Poughkeepsie, and listened to your old Dutch Uncle Johnny Conklin
when you were a kid. The phrase, according to a granddaughter of Henry's, was a favorite of
"Dunder and Blixem" literally meant "thunder and lightning!" Knickerbocker's History of
New York recounts a battle between the Dutch and Swedes for settlements along the Hudson.
"The heavens were darkened with a tempest of missives. Bang! went the guns- whack! went the
broad-swords- thump! went the cudgels- crash! went the musket-stocks- blows- kicks- cuffs-
scratches- black eyes and bloody noses swelling the horrors of the scene! Thick thwack, cut and
hack, helter-skelter, higgledy-piggledy, hurly-burly, head over heels, rough and tumble!-- Dunder
and bluxum! Swore the Dutchmen- splitter and splutter! cried the Swedes."(5)
So I was in the Carnegie-Mellon Hunt Library in Pittsburgh to find out what happened to
Henry's oath. Mary Kay Johnsen, the librarian in charge of the Anne Lyon Haight collection of
Night Before Christmas information, was one of the best researchers with whom I've had the
pleasure to work. Her research area was a separate room with lit display cases surrounding wide,
practical tables Faster than I could type, she brought out early books and manuscripts until the
table was covered with them. I typed, she copied. And when we said goodbye, I felt as though
we'd been in the trenches together. If you ever have an opportunity to do research, may all your
research sources be Mary Kays!
In the first publication of "An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas" in the 1823 Troy
Sentinel(6), the two lines of the poem that name the reindeer have a very jerky, awkward rhythm
that doesn't even rhyme.
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;(7)
That's the problem with being a spontaneous poet. Sometimes it shows.
Right away, editors who republished the piece made changes to it that went well beyond
simple punctuation changes. But who would care? It was anonymous, after all.
The first publications of the poem in book form came in two almanacs for 1825. Griggs
and Dickinson of Philadelphia expanded contractions like "danc'd" and changed "I sprang from
my bed to see what was the matter" to "I sprung from my bed" to go with, "He sprung to his
sleigh, to his team gave a whistle."
McClure, in his United States National Almanac(8), didn't bother with the contractions or
how the poet got out of bed, but he was picky about the spelling of "sugar plums," preferring the
sweeter "sugar plumbs." But the most important change McClure made was to the reindeer
names. He was the first editor to give Blixem the rhyming name of Blixen.
Back in Troy, Norman Tuttle, the owner of the Troy Sentinel, recognized that his paper
had found a good thing, and reissued the poem as a single page, illustrated broadsheet.(9) Of
course he changed the punctuation. Everyone did that! He expanded some of the contractions,
ala Griggs and Dickinson, and stuck some words together ("sugar plums" to "sugar-plums,"
"bowl full" to "bowlfull"), but the most important change Tuttle made was to the fundamental
verse. He fixed the rhythm of the reindeer names so that they flowed as smoothly as the flight of
the little sleigh. The names, themselves, he left alone.
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixem;
From 1825 to 1837, the poem went through numerous small changes as editor after editor
picked up a copy from here or there, and added their own changes. The Poughkeepsie Journal
version(10), published not long before Henry's death, had the children "nested all snug in their bed"
and Santa's sleigh pulled by eight red deer, while the Rover(11) added to Blixem's identity
confusion by renaming him Nixen!
In 1837 Charles Fenno Hoffman, a friend of Moore's, published the poem in his New-York Book of Poetry(12) and, for the first time, the poem was attributed to Moore. Hoffman made a
few editorial changes, such as turning "As dry leaves before the wild hurricane" into "As leaves
that before." As for the reindeer names, Hoffman did a mix and match. He used the Troy
Sentinel broadsheet rhyme for the first line, kept the original rhythm of the second line, but
added the McClure Almanac name change of Blixem to Blixen. But the most important change
is that here, for the first time, Dunder changed to Donder. So in Hoffman's version the lines
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen!
On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blixen-
And, lastly, we come to Clement Moore's version. As Don had thought, Moore's version
owed more to the intermediate editors than it did to the first 1823 version that came out of his
house. It owed so much to Tuttle's 1830 Troy Sentinel broadsheet, in fact, that he could have put
Tuttle's name on the piece instead of his own. There were some changes, though. Instead of
Dunder, Moore used Hoffman's Donder, and poor Blixem got yet another name, Blitzen, which
should have put the poor reindeer (or red deer) into an identity crisis!
Besides the reindeer names, Moore took the original line "As dry leaves before the wild
hurricane," and combined it with Hoffman's "As leaves that before." Moore's resulting version
became "As dry leaves that before." Moore also changed the tense of the 1830 broadsheet line
"A bundle of Toys was flung on his back." In Moore's version it became, "A bundle of Toys he
had flung on his back."
So now, as a result of 17 years of editorial changes, we have Moore's final version of the
two reindeer lines.
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!(13)
But the story didn't end there. While trying to track down signatures of Moore, I received
a package from the Museum of the City of New York. It contained a fascinating set of pages,
including letters from Moore to his mother, all beginning with the formal "My dear Mother," so
unlike the use of the more informal term of Mama or Mamma by the Dutch New York world in
general, and Henry Livingston, in particular(14).
The package also contained a letter to Moore from Troy Sentinel owner, Tuttle, in which
he mentions that he hadn't known the name of the poet when the piece was first published in his
newspaper in 1823, but had learned since then that Moore was the author(16). This letter appeared
in Don Foster's book with Don's observation that it looked much like something Moore read as
meaning that the coast was clear to publish the poem under his own name. What surprised me
was that with the letter was a copy of Tuttle's 1830 Troy Sentinel broadsheet. And on that
broadsheet were several inked-in changes in an unidentified handwriting, including adding "that"
to "dry leaves before the wild hurricane," changing Blixen to Blitzen, and changing the tense of
the pedlar's pack.
But it was a second document that stopped me cold. Around 1920 there had been an
article in the New York Bookman(17) and in the
Christian Science Monitor(18) that had raised the
issue of Henry Livingston as the possible author of the poem. Apparently that had spooked one
of Moore's descendants, Casmir de R. Moore, enough to have him get a signed statement from
his second cousin, Maria Jephson O'Conor, describing a story she had been told by her father,
that he had heard directly from Moore, himself. What Moore said to her father was that when
Moore returned from his turkey errand, he had gone into his study and written down the poem.
That original manuscript, according to Moore, needed only two slight changes when he came to
publish it with some of his other poems.(19)
So if those inked-in changes were supposed to represent those minor changes, then Moore
would have been essentially correct with his estimate that he had made just two changes off the
original. Well, he would have been. If the 1829-30 broadsheet had actually been the original!
But in the letter to Moore, Tuttle neglected to mention that he'd already made a great many
changes to the 1823 poem, so Moore's version is similar to the one he was sent by Tuttle, but not
to the one that was first published!
Game and match to Don Foster.
If you're looking for a Dutch influence in any other piece of Henry's writing, you don't
have to look far. Henry gives an account of Henry Hudson's discovery of an already occupied
new world, but he does it from a particularly "Henry" point of view.
MEMOIRS of a PINE TREE.
I arose from the cone of my parent pine on the 23d day of May, 1452, and
found myself on the island Manhaddan, which is laved on one side by the majestic
Hudson, and on the other by the rapid stream of the Haspedoc. Before it lay an
extensive bay, variegated with islands, and bounded by a coast waving in verdure,
and gently undulated, excepting where the irresistible Hudson had forced itself a
passage, through which old ocean gleamed.
Here, nature alone gave her law. The hills were clothed with loftiest oaks,
and the vales were embrowned with thickets, from which even the fearless panther
turned aside. Whales gambol'd in my sight, and the playful porpoise lashed the
Men too were here; but they seemed to be the sons of the soil, for their
manners and their habits perfectly coincided with every thing around them. They
were not numerous, for there was not subsistence for a multitude. They were
seldom engaged in wars, for there were few incentives. They were not avaricious,
for there was no fictitious want.
Constant exercises, not labor, kept them healthy and their understandings,
replete with ideas original and all their own, were strong and energetic.
Their religion must have been simple, and unclogged with rites or ceremonies; for
from my loftiest leaf I never saw temple, altar, or sacrifice.
I would not, however, insinuate, that because these people were savage
they were free from vice. Revenge appeared in its most odious forms, and I have
witnessed scenes of domestic retaliation, which I beheld with horror, and which
three hundred years have not worn from my mind. The exposing infirm infants,
and leaving their decrepit parents to famish in the solitary hut, were outrages
against nature, which the plea of necessity could by no means palliate.
I have so long and frequently seen the enormities of uncivilization, and the
sensualities of refinement -- the errors of pagans, and the vices of Christians -- the
former, coming short of that law within them, a radiance from heaven, of which
all men partake -- and the latter, spurning the institutions of the most excellent
religion of which any record remains-- that upon the whole, I believe the scale of
perfection waves pretty even between them.
After I had risen to some magnitude, my branches became the shelter of
many successive habitations and to this day, whenever a forlorn remnant of the
once renowned Mohecon tribe wanders in my neighborhood, he looks up to me
with the same kind of veneration a Christian gazed upon a relic, or a moslem on
the city which gave birth to his prophet.
When I reflect upon the scenes I witnessed between two and three
centuries ago, and those I behold at this time, I can scarcely credit my own
identity, or that nature itself is not entirely changed. Formerly, not an hour
elapsed, but the moose, the elk, the caribou, or the deer, stalked in my view, or
thundered through the forest, pursued by the panther, or the wolf and I once,
when very young, saw that terror of ancient, and wonder of modern time, the
monstrous mammoth. His height was two score feet, and his whole form
indicated strength and ferocity. He ravaged midway the tallest elms, or tasted
their topmost foliage at his pleasure. When he thirsted for blood, which happened
periodically, neither the buffalo, the moose, or the tiger could escape; and not
infrequently, the screaming tenants of a whole village completed the repast. The
individual I saw, perished, by plunging into the river to attack a whale that arose
near the shore.
The last important conflict of the natives happened about one hundred and
thirty years ago, on the very spot where the city of New York now uplifts its
elegant domes. The Mohecons, who covered the whole southern part of the
country, had long felt the effects of the prowess of the Mohawks, and seldom
retired with laurels. On this occasion, uncommon preparations were made by the
Mohawks to attack, and by the Mohecons to resist. The latter began to skirmish
on the banks of the Croton, and continued a retrograde opposition, till they
crossed the current which forms the island of Manhaddan. Here the conflict
became ferocious; and many warriors fell by the missive arrow, or flinty
tomahawk but the ardor and impetuosity of the northern bands bore down every
barrier, and this important pass was carried. The poor discomfited Mohecons fled
in terror to the extreme part of the island, with their enemies and destruction close
behind them. Despair now assumed the appearance of intrepidity, and once more
was the work of carnage resumed but the evil genius of the youth prevailed, and a
grave was all that remained of the best and bravest train the Mohecons ever armed
for the field.
It was on the 14th day of August, 1658, that every attention was arrested
by an object new as it was wonderful. A monster, greater than the largest whale,
with enormous wings, whiter than snow, and breathing at intervals fire and
smoke, appeared moving on the ocean. It approached by a gentle motion, and was
thought to be the genius of the fen. It still came forward, till very near the banks I
shaded, when it suddenly flopped and closed its stupendous pinions. It now was
observed to be crowded with people, and to be neither a spirit nor an animal.
The strangers hurried on shore, and taking possession of the western part of the
island, covered it with houses and defenses. They supplied the unsuspecting
natives with a number of superfluities, and which they falsely called necessities;
but at the same time introduced a train of enervating luxuries before unknown,
and a poison more fatal than the marshy sumach, or the crimson tendrils of the
baleful moloquindos: it exterminated reason, introduced disease, and ended in
These first adventurers were succeeded by others, and all multiplied
rapidly -- the aboriginals receded -- till at length the sons of Europe covered
the face of this western world with a splendor and magnificence, not yet
proved to be more intrinsically beautiful than the virgin apparatus of nature,
or more conducive to the real felicity of man.(20)
Like so much of Henry's writing, this one presents us with unexpected ideas dressed in
fascinating phrases, such as "ficticious want." Hudson actually explored his river in 1609,
landing on the 17th of September near the town of Hudson.(21) But it's understandable that the
tree got Henry Hudson's arrival date wrong since, after all, pine trees are notoriously sticky on
dates. The appearance of blood-thirsty mammoths in this time period we'll put down to poetic
Henry Livingston is part of the New York Dutch community that transplanted the
tolerance of the Netherlands to the fertile soil of New Netherlands. His observations of the
native Americans who lived in the sparsely settled land north of New York City is refreshingly
devoid of the negative stereotypes that we expect from people of his era. Henry treats native
Americans with the same respectful attention that he gives to everyone, applauding the strength
of their understanding, while condemning cultural traditions that allow the survival of the strong
at the expense of the weak. And, in the end, admits to thinking that the replacement of the values
of an earlier culture with the one of his day may not have made the world a better place.
Although Henry's great grandfather, Robert Livingston, was Scotch, most of his Conklin
and Beekman ancestors were Dutch, with just a trace of Sweden enriching the Beekman side
from a sea captain sailing for the Dutch West India Company.
Cornelia Beekman's grandfather, William Beekman, emigrated to America with Peter
Stuyvesant, a Dutch governor known for his silver-engraved wooden leg, and for turning New
Amsterdam over to the British without a shot. William was a young man of wealth, education
and connections. He was also responsible for building the outer wall of the fort which protected
New Amsterdam. The path along that wall is today called Wall Street.
William became the sheriff of what is today Kingston, but must have missed the bright
candles of the city because by 1671 he was back in New Amsterdam's political whirl as an
Alderman and Deputy Mayor of New Amsterdam. William's son, Henry, stayed behind when
his father returned to New Amsterdam, in time becoming a judge, the Sheriff of Kingston, and a
Member of the Provincial Legislature. He, too, must have loved the land, because he amassed
240,000 acres of it.
Henry Sr.'s uncle, Colonel Beekman, was the principal inheritor of the Beekman fortune.
Although he married twice, both times to women from the Livingston clan, he had only a single
child, Margaret. Colonel Beekman preferred to live in New York City and took on his sister's
son, Henry Livingston, Sr., as the business manager for his estate. Because his father worked so
closely with his granduncle, Colonel Beekman, Henry Jr., too, was close to the Beekman family,
and spent extended periods of time at the city home of the Colonel, staying there through the
winters of 1770 and 1771 while the Hudson was frozen and transport north difficult(22).
Margaret Beekman married Henry Sr.'s first cousin, Robert R. Livingston of Clermont.
Their most famous child was Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Jr., one of the five members of
the committee that drew up the Declaration of Independence, though Livingston was called back
to New York before being able to sign it. But he did get his place in history by being the one to
give the oath of office to President George Washington. Chancellor Livingston is better known,
though, for working with Robert Fulton to create the first successful steamboat, named Clermont
after the Chancellor's home.
Chancellor Livingston made an arrangement with the New York legislature that if he
could produce a steamboat by a given date, he would get a monopoly on all steamboat travel on
the Hudson for some period of time. His frustration must have been fierce when he failed to get
one working. But the next year he discovered Robert Fulton in Europe, and convinced him to
come back with him to make another try. This time they succeeded. Although there was no
longer any need for an incentive, Livingston was still able to talk the New York legislature into
reinstating his monopoly for several years.
The Chancellor's siblings did well for themselves, too. Janet Livingston married General
Richard Montgomery, the commander of Henry Jr.'s Canadian expedition. Brothers John Robert
and Henry Beekman Livingston were also members of the expedition. Henry Beekman went on
to become a Brigadier General. Margaret's husband, Dr. Thomas Tillotson, became the New
York Secretary of State, and Catharine chose a well-known evangelical minister, the Reverend
Freeborn Garrettson. Gertrude Livingston married General Morgan Lewis, who became the
governor of New York. Brother Edward became a U.S. Senator, and sister Alida married one,
Senator John Armstrong. John Armstrong became the Minister to France, and then Secretary of
War. Copying his brother-in-law, Montgomery, John Armstrong stung the Canadians with an
unsuccessful invasion of their country. The Canadian response was to burn the White House.
Armstrong resigned. All in all, an interesting set of Dutch second cousins for young Henry(23).
As more and more of the Livingston family married outside the Dutch community, fewer
and fewer of the young people could still speak Dutch. The transition of the Dutch Reformed
Church from Dutch to English services made knowing the Dutch language an increasingly
unnecessary skill. But familiarity with English didn't necessarily mean having a thorough
knowledge of the history and origin of words. Henry Jr. felt this important gap in public
knowledge was one he needed to fill.
ANTIQUITY and UNIVERSALITY of the ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
THE people of the United States are almost generally descended from
Englishmen: he that proves, therefore, that the language of Englishmen (like the
old fashioned Hebrew) was once that [language] used by all the world, will add a
considerable bolster to occidental vanity.
The venerable empire of China got its name from the following
circumstance, if the memoirs of Fo-hung-fo are to be credited. Some thousand
moons ago, one of its monarchs happened to be as great an epicure as any modern
monarch need to be: he used to summon up his cook every morning after sipping
his gin-feng beverage, and demand the bill of fare of the day. Among other viands,
the cook once mentioned a chine of pork -- it happened not to be the king's
favorite morsel, and in a voice of thunder he reiterated Chine-ha! -- China-ha was
echoed from every nook of the palace -- from palace to the city -- from the city to
the provinces -- and, finally ended in giving name to the greatest empire the sun
In the capital of this very country, a bevy of young girls took it in their
heads to wear their conical bonnets uncommonly peaking - the reader at a blush
sees whence came the name of Peking. Some authors, however, and they too of
tolerable reputation, say that one of the emperors of the dynasty of Chung-tchi,
was so immoderately fond of peas, that he got the name of Pea-king, and gave it to
the royal residence.
The city of Nan-kin, it is well known, took its name from one Nancy
Keene, a trollop, who kept a gin-shop in Liverpool. Her business there growing
dull, she tramped over to China, and set up the trade of brewing tea-toddy, in the
town which now bears her name without having suffered the least corruption. ...
King James the first in a fit of titleing conferred the honor of knighthood
upon a loin of beef; and succeeding monarchs have frequently dignified, in a
similar manner, masses of animated humanity not more respectable. One of the
ancient monarchs on the Malabar coast, in a frolic, knighted an overgrown rat that
rioted in his rice plantations: the whiskered gentleman got the name of Sir-rat! and
the city of Surat perpetuates the ludicrous transaction.
One of the queens of Tunis was a mighty mincing, fastidious, prinky body,
and thereby disgusted all her courtiers; who could not refrain frequently
exclaiming that she was too-nice! -- and, in that epithet, gave name to a sovereign
It is registered in the splendid history of Monotocambulus, that Hercules
once undertook to rear a line of stone-fence at the foot of Mount Abyla. He had
half a dozen picked cyclops from the summit of Etna to attend him. A fellow of
his brawn scorned to piddle with pebbles. Nothing but the hugest fragments could
suffice; and his brawling every minute, more-rock-ho! has given name to the
important kingdom of Morocco. Few names have tramped down thro' thirty
centuries so unmutilated as this.
That the aborigines of this western world once spoke only English is
indubitable. The enormous father of rivers, which bounds the Anglo-American
empire, had its name from a certain fat landlady who lived at the sign of the
pot-lid and oven, at Batton-rouge. Her undeviating treat for every guest was a
sea-pie, whether composed of the fillets of a roaring buffalo, or the giblets of a
tittering wren. She at length acquired the name of Mrs. Sea-pie. Show me the
etymologist who will dare deny that Mississippi is not legitimately descended
from this same fat landlady!
The renowned Pondiac's celebrated, biographical, critical, and historical
seraps mention that near the river Miami lived a pretty girl of the name of Amy,
and the idol of every swain in her vicinity. These inamoratos never met but -- My
Amy! -- My own Amy! -- My charming Amy! was in every mouth. The first
exclamation predominated, and Mi-a-mi will forever continue the name of this
It is well known that the Indians called the island of New-York Manhatten
-- now, this is a palpable corruption of Man-hating; a nick-name given to a sterile
old damsel that scolded out her existence in a cabin which stood on the very
ground now occupied by the City-hall. R.(24)
It's interesting to wonder what Henry would have done with "Cincinnati."