Local History


By Published On: December 1st, 2023

In 1823, a dismayed Clement Clarke Moore would learn that his poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, nowadays popularly known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, had been published in the Troy (NY) Sentinel, albeit lacking attribution.

The poem has since been published in the neighborhood of 2,500 times and illustrated by such luminaries as Jessie Wilcox Smith, W.W. Denslow, and Grandma Moses.

Austere in bearing, Moore, the 1798 Columbia College (now University) valedictorian, who preferred to be viewed as a scholar, brought the now world-famous poem into being in 1822 at a holiday gathering inside his New York home. Following the 1811 imposition of the New York City street grid, of which Moore was no admirer, that property is now located at West 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue. In 1822, Moore was in his second year as a literature professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York. Historical aside: Moore’s father, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, in 1804 administered holy communion to the mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton. 

Happening near you

On Wednesday, December 6, at 5:30pm, Pamela McColl, author of TWAS THE NIGHT: The Art and History of the Classic Christmas Poem, will be on hand for a book talk at the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society in Copake Falls. 

A few days prior, on Sunday, December 3, the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Chamber, will intertwine its 41st annual holiday Victorian stroll in Troy with events celebrating the December 23, 1823, Troy Sentinel publication of Moore’s work. At press time, the Victorian stroll/Twas schedule of events had yet to be completed – it will be available on the Chamber’s website at renscochamber.com in the days preceding December 3.

Also on Sunday, December 3, the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society will hold its annual Winter Walk, complete with an appearance from Santa.

A happy coincidence

In one of life’s delicious coincidences, Roeliff Jansen Historical Society President Lesley Doyel grew up in a Chelsea brownstone that had been built by Clement Clarke Moore. Her mom and dad, Rowena and John Doyel, purchased the house in 1965, and John, who designed lawn-ornament Santas for a time, began in earnest to accumulate antique and mechanical Santas from the four corners of the globe. At Christmas time, the Doyels would open their home to neighbors and friends. 

For those among us who recall those idiosyncratic Ronco “as-seen-on-TV” commercials –think Miracle Broom and Duck Brush, to name a couple– that began working their way into our lives in the 1960s, that would be Lesley’s father behind the invention and design of many of those products. 

Several years preceding his 2012 death at the age of 92, Mr. Doyel’s metamorphosis into Santa Claus was nearly complete, as a New York Times story observed: “That he has come to look like Santa, albeit a skinny one, is, at least in his case, aesthetically appropriate. For years he has been living, incongruously and year-round, amid a riot of mechanical Christmas kitsch – singing bears with red and white Santa caps, a flirty fir who shakes her thing, a Santa from the 1920s whose jingling bells have gone silent, and another from the ’50s who flips the pages of the book he is holding.”

“Over time,” said Lesley, “this collection amassed. Then it became one of those things where people find out you have this collection and begin bringing you things from all over the world.” Eventually, he possessed a number of editions of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, including one illustrated by Denslow and some antique versions. When the family moved to Washington Heights, they found themselves living adjacent to the cemetery where Moore was buried.

More writings, further grumblings

Clement Clarke Moore’s writing might best be described as eclectic in scope. His first published work, in 1804, was, according to poemanalysis.com, “a pro-Federalist pamphlet that attacked the religion of Thomas Jefferson. He was the incumbent president at the time and a candidate for the 1804 election. In full, the work was titled ‘Observations upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion, and Establish a False Philosophy.’”

Other Moore works included A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809), a translation from the French of A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep (1811), and the historical biography, George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania (1850). 

The life of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas comes with no small degree of fuss and bother. It wasn’t until 1844, when the work was published in a collection of his poetry, that Moore would claim “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Later in life, he would refer to “A Visit from St. Nicholas” as his “long-ago trifle,” according to the New York Public Library.

Meanwhile, like moths flocking to a light, the poem’s burgeoning popularity was attracting a fair number of others claiming authorship, the most notable of whom was Henry Livingston, Jr., who not only left an enduring footprint in the Hudson Valley, but whose family heartily contests authorship of the poem, although Livingston himself never did. Indeed, there exist several books and an entire website (henrylivingston.com) devoted to making the case – among a multitude of other proposed evidentiary items comes a claim that Livingston’s A Visit from St. Nicholas was first published around 1800 in the Knickerbocker Magazine.

Will the true author please stand up?

In 2016, MacDonald Jackson, English professor emeritus at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, published his book Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question, which claims authorship for Livingston. 

According to CBC News, Seth Kaller, a recognized expert in the authentication of rare documents, who at one time owned an original manuscript of the poem said to be in Moore’s handwriting, said “the matter was in ‘Obama birth certificate territory.’ Yes, there is a controversy. The controversy is why so many people are still questioning the authenticity of something indisputably proven to be true. There is literally no contemporary evidence that Livingston ever claimed to be or was the author. He didn’t, and he wasn’t.”

Santa Claus is still smoking

Roughly a dozen years ago, along came publisher Pamela McColl, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, and a longtime tobacco-prevention activist. “What,” she wondered, “could I publish that could bring attention to this issue? I went to the library and saw smoking leprechauns and smoking bunny rabbits, and I went, wait a minute, Santa Claus is still smoking. I scooped up all the editions I could find and saw that nobody had ever made him smoke free. So, I published an edition of the poem that was smoke free.”

Then the fun really got underway. “It went nuts,” said McColl. “Stephen Colbert did a spoof on me and called me a Nazi. Barbara Walters got hold of it and she went crazy. Kelly and Regis went crazy. It wound up on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams reading it as a news story. People, including the American Library Association, were upset that I was censoring a poem. That is completely not true. It was all rather ridiculous but it gave me a platform.”

In 2013, McColl was asked to participate in a “Livingston v. Moore: Who Really Wrote ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas?’” mock trial held in the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy, NY, complete with distinguished Capital Region attorneys, a judge, and a jury. With E. Stewart Jones representing Moore and Jack Casey standing up for Livingston, no end of courtroom shenanigans were afoot. At the end of the day, the six-person jury could not reach a decision, and a hung jury declared. 

“The whole time I was working on this, I was always looking for more evidence. Literary sleuthing is really fun, but if you get too excited about it, it can distract you from everything else. I cautioned myself to not make my writing and my research about the sleuthing,” she said. 

McColl emerged from her personal scrutiny of the did-Moore-or-did-Moore-not-pen-the-famous-work controversy on the pro-Moore side. “I do think Clement Clarke Moore wrote it. His spirit is in the poem. The biggest piece of evidence, I guess, is that the oldest handwritten copy of the poem is on watermarked paper from 1824 in the handwriting of Moore’s godfather’s daughter. All the Livingstons have is a family story that when he died, there was a copy in a drawer, and that that copy went to Wisconsin. Then the house burned down, and everything was destroyed, except miraculously the manuscripts of all his other works survived, but this poem didn’t.”

Who dunnit?

Was it Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston, Jr.? As can often be the case, it depends on who catches your ear, and let’s leave that there for the reader to adjudicate following his or her own investigation. 

“The biggest thing about the poem is its longevity,” said McColl. “It’s 200 years old. It’s still read the way it was written two centuries ago. It’s also a benevolent, kind work, with no threat of punishment. No naughty or nice business – that came later.”

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

’Twas the Night Before Christmas •