For many American families, A Visit from St. Nicholas is part of their yearly Christmas celebration.
For descendants of John (1745-1829) and Sarah Jay (1756-1802), the poem is more than a holiday tradition. It is a family story.
Whether it is a family story for all Jay descendants, or only for some, depends on who authored Twas the Night Before Christmas, as the poem is popularly known. The broadly accepted attribution is that Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863) wrote the poem. However, some advocates and scholars credit the poem to Henry Livingston (1748-1828). Both Clarke and Livingston were Jay family relatives.
The debate over authorship dates back to when the poem was first published anonymously in the Dec. 23, 1822 edition of the Troy Sentinel newspaper. Moore’s name was not attached to the work until 1837, when it appeared in The New-York Book of Poetry which was edited by his friend Charles Fenno Hoffman.
Moore himself did not claim authorship until 1846, when he included A Visit from St. Nicholas in an anthology of his poetry. Moore preferred to be known for his more scholarly works but included the poem in the anthology at the request of his children. By that time, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship.
Moore was a scholar of Hebrew and Biblical Studies at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. His career choice was not surprising, given that his father, the Rev. Benjamin Moore (1748-1816), was the second Episcopal Bishop of New York. The Moore estate occupied much of what today is the city’s Chelsea neighborhood.
In 1812 William Jay (1789-1858) married Anna Moore McVickar (1790-1857), who was a second cousin to Clement Clark Moore.
Henry Livingston was a gentleman farmer in the Poughkeepsie area who worked as a surveyor and mapmaker. Livingston served briefly as a major during the Revolutionary War, joining Gen. Richard Montgomery’s forces that invaded Canada in 1777.
Henry Livingston died in 1829, just seven years after first publication of the poem. While he never claimed to have written A Visit from St. Nicholas, his children recalled their father reciting the poem, and his descendants continue to claim his authorship.
Henry Livingston was a second cousin to Sarah Jay. Making both Moore and Livingston Jay family relations through marriage.
Throughout much of the 19th century, the Livingston claim of authorship was mostly confined to family lore.
In the 20th century, the argument was occasionally brought up publicly. But the Livingston descendants had to overcome resistance to the notion they were accusing Moore, a respected theologian and author, of plagiarism.
Most recently – and most ardently – the Livingston case has been taken up by Mary Van Deusen. Van Deusen is Henry Livingston’s five-times-great granddaughter.
Outside the family, perhaps the strongest supporters of the Livingston attribution have been two scholars, Don Foster and MacDonald P. Jackson.
Foster, then a professor of English at Vassar College, made the case for Livingston in Author Unknown, a book published in 2000. He compared the known poems of Moore and Livingston with the Christmas poem and found much more in common with Livingston’s writing style. Notably, Moore wrote only once using the anapestic meter, which is the rhythm of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Livingston, he found, wrote in this style frequently. He also concluded that based on his other works Moore was just too serious and scholarly to have written such a light-spirited poem.
In 2016, MacDonald P. Jackson published Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas?, Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore Vs. Henry Livingston Question. Jackson, a professor at the University of Auckland, compared elements of writing style in other works by the Moore and Livingston. His conclusion: Henry Livingston was the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas.
Foster and Jackson attracted more dissent than support in academic and literary circles. However, in a 2015 exhibit on the topic, the New York State Library concluded that the pro-Livingston faction is gaining converts.
While the authorship debate is important for scholarly and family reasons, it does not diminish the stature or the significance of the poem.
When Moore published it under his own name in 1846, he dismissed the poem as “trifle.” New York City historians Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows have a different take, observing that the poem contains “the best-known verses ever written by an American.”