Henry Livingston Henry Livingston Henry Livingston
Henry Livingston


"Every test, so far applied, associates 'The Night Before Christmas' much more closely with Livingston's verse than with Moore's."

From: MacDonald P. Jackson
December 17, 2013

During my forty years as a tenured staff-member of the University of Auckland's English Department I taught a very wide range of courses (anything from Beowulf to Beckett and beyond), but my publications have mostly been on Shakespeare and his contemporaries and on New Zealand literature, with a sideline on nineteenth-century poetry.

In Shakespeare's time playwrights often collaborated on the writing of scripts, and many plays were published anonymously or under the wrong name. So a lot of my research has been devoted to determining "who wrote what when". It used to be thought that Shakespeare, like God, performed his acts of creation alone. But over the last few decades it has become clear that, like others involved in the early modern entertainment industry, Shakespeare wrote several of his plays jointly with other dramatists. And it now seems probable that, early in his career, he contributed to at least two plays published without any author's name on the title page.

It was because of my interest in problems of authorship connected with Shakespeare and his great contemporary Thomas Middleton, in particular, that I read Don Foster's book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York, 2000). I had met him and knew his work as a Shakespeare scholar. He gained deserved celebrity for discovering stylistic quirks and preferences that identified the author of the anonymously published political novel Primary Colors (1996) as Joe Klein. But he had also argued that the "W.S." who wrote a poem called "A Funeral Elegy" was William Shakespeare. I had disagreed with him over that attribution, but enjoyed his new book and found the chapter on "The Night Before Christmas" not only stylishly written but persuasive. It made a case for concluding that the true author of this poem, among the best-known ever written by an American, was not Clement Clarke Moore, as generally believed, but Henry Livingston. I soon discovered that Moore's champions had plenty to say in reply. But they seemed to me not to have satisfactorily answered Don's most telling points.

Here was the kind of literary whodunit that lures me into trying to be the Sherlock Holmes who solves it. I checked out all the arguments on either side of the debate. I read Moore's Poems (1844) and the poems by Livingston made available on Mary Van Deusen's splendid website. Livingston's poetic personality immediately appealed. His moving "God Is Love" sums him up: he was full of love for everything and everybody in the world around him. I admired his warmth, empathy, bonhomie, eye for detail, and good-hearted wit. There was an endearing delicacy about the poems on the death of a young niece's pet wren (in the tradition of Catullus' on the death of Lesbia's sparrow, a poem that he refers to in one of his own) and of the little dog Belle. He could enter into a child's world. He relished the essential being of all living creatures. In one of his rebus puzzle-poems he refers to the eighteenth-century novelist Lawrence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, as

"The author of Shandy, all laughter and glee
Whose pencil from gall was forever kept free."
He himself was not ALL laughter and glee - his epitaphs and elegies are heartfelt, and his accounts of the year's events in his New Year addresses are realistic - but as a poet he is remarkably free from "gall."

Nobody could say the same about Clement Moore's verse, which, in contrast, is that of a satirist and moralizer. And whereas Livingston's poems teem with detailed concrete references to individual persons, animals, birds, insects, and things, Moore's tend towards the abstract and generalized. Livingston's verse shows many signs of the lively, whimsical fancy, and the narrative skill that could create "The Night Before Christmas." Moore's, at least in Poems (1844), does not. Livingston knows how to shape a poem into "beginning, middle, and end", whereas Moore is inclined to just meander on. I could find no evidence in Moore's verse, even his manuscript pieces for his children, of the imaginative zest of "The Night Before Christmas."

However, it is not unknown for writers to surpass themselves and achieve an uncharacteristic one-off hit, and questions of authorship cannot be settled by mere impressions. It is necessary to devise objective tests. I contacted Mary, and she and Paul and their friend Lyn, with their exceptional IT expertise, provided a wealth of data to be explored and lots of clues to be pursued. Every test, so far applied, associates "The Night Before Christmas" much more closely with Livingston's verse than with Moore's. Writing up the results takes time, but when they are published I hope other attribution scholars will try their own different approaches to the issue. It will surprise me if all reliable kinds of testing do not reach the same conclusions.

Mac    email

      Mac's latest book is coming out from Oxford Press.

      MacDonald Jackson in Wikipedia.

      Statistical analysis used to examine 'Night Before Christmas' authorship


For seven months in 2012 I worked with a researcher on the author attribution question. Long and wonderful days and nights of total obsession, and we restart in January. Learned so very much and loved every minute. He wants me to put up a data area to support his research and, until he publishes, I'm going to start with one of the data bases that really didn't win us anything. But, still, it's fun to look at fundamental data. And, yes, I do remember reading phone books as a kid.

Follow the meandering reindeer name trail from Dunder and Blixem to Donder and Blitzen.

The arguments for Henry as the author of A Visit From St. Nicholas are persuasive. They range from witnesses telling their children and grandchildre that they heard the poem read by Henry, to considerations of style. Don Foster's approach to the authorship issue was to compare the work of three people: Henry Livingston, Clement Moore, and the unknown author of the Christmas poem. His conclusion: the literary influences on Henry and the unknown author were almost identical; the influences on Moore completely different.

Smoking Gun?,   First Publication of NBC,   Timeline,   Clement Clark Moore's Poetry  
Xmas Poem Variants

As part of his investigation, Don Foster examined text variations in early publications to see if Moore's 1844 version owed anything to an earlier editor. And, indeed, it did. The major change in the poem, the reindeer name rhythm, was actually made by Norman Tuttle, the owner of the Troy Sentinel.


Antique Christmas postcards are a favorite collectible. They are inexpensive, easy to store, and provide access to a wide range of artists from many countries. This collection includes photographic cards, Santas with non-red clothing, and some pretty crotchety Santas thrown in for good measure.


While Christmas has always been a favorite subject of artists, A Visit From St. Nicholas has been absolutely inspirational. Early magazines published the poem with an engraving by Nash. Later Nash art appeared in publications devoted to only that Christmas poem.


A fictional account of Henry's writing of the Christmas poem.

From 1879 on, the Livingston family tried to bring Henry's claim to the public, but their efforts were unsuccessful. In 1920, William Sturges Thomas took up the quest from his older relatives with far more success. But though he was able to make his case public, the public wasn't ready to believe the son of an Episcopalian archbishop had plagarized a piece of writing. W. Stephen Thomas took up the quest for his generation, and did convince Vassar President MacCracken, but that still didn't carry weight with the general public. In 1999, another descendant, Mary Van Deusen, brought the problem to Don Foster, an expert in attribution of anonymous works. With Don supplying the direction and the analysis, Don and Mary the low-level research, and Stephen Livingston Thomas making available the collected materials he had inherited, Don put a major stake into the ground for Henry's claim.

While the world was falling in love with the Christmas poem, Henry's children were teaching their children that their grandfather had written it. By the time the Livingston family finally learned that Moore had taken credit for the poem in 1844, it was already 1860, Henry was long dead, and the original was ashes in a Wisconsin fire. From then on, descendants pooled their memories in the hope that someday someone could prove the case they didn't know how to prove.

Night Before Christmas Music Video
Music VIdeoss
Fun Activities for Christmas
Page Through Antique Illustrated Editions of Night Before Christmas
View Antique Santa Postcards
Research the Authorship Question for Yourself
And after the fun, fall asleep to Clement Moore's Poetry
Hopefully, the sugar plums of illustration from antique postcards will help.


Arguments,   Smoking Gun?,   Reindeer Names,   First Publication,   Early Variants  
Timeline Summary,   Witness Letters,   Quest to Prove Authorship,   Scholars,   Fiction  
Henry Livingston's Poetry,   Clement Moore's Poetry  

Xmas,   Games,   The Man,   Writing,   History,   Work,   Illos,   Music,   Genealogy,   Bios,   Slideshow

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