Michille: Twas the Night Before Christmas


Jan Brett, illustrator

Twas the Night Before Christmas, originally titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, was published anonymously in the Sentinel in 1823. Clement Clark Moore claimed authorship in 1837. It is one of the best-known poems ever written by an American and established many of the notions Americans have of Santa Claus. It is an iconic part of the holiday in this country and has inspired many book versions, songs, movies, and parodies in Christmas pop culture. One could argue that it has achieved celebrity status in U.S. Christmas tradition. In 2006, a hand-written copy of it sold for $280,000. It, like any other popular celebrity, has also had its share of controversy with various folks digging deep into the origins and the meanings.

Written by Clement C. Moore . . . or was it? The family of Henry Livingston, Jr claimed their father had been telling the story for 15 years before it was published. Professor and forensic linguist Donald Foster used textual content analysis and other evidence to argue that Moore could not have been the author. Among Foster’s arguments are that Livingston wrote poetry and some of the phrases in A Visit are consistent with other poems by him; and his Dutch mother was ‘proof’ that the Dutch references in the poem came from Livingston. As for Moore, his connection to Washington Irving, who was Dutch, could explain the Dutch references. Also in Moore’s favor is that the poem found its way to the Sentinel through a relative of Moore. Just as Livingston has a scholar in his corner, so does Moore. Seth Kaller disputes Foster’s arguments in favor of Moore.

The poem has sparked other research, as well. Phillip M. Cunio, MIT School of Engineering, answered the burning question, “Are Santa’s Reindeer Used for Propulsion or Navigation?” in 2011. Despite not having the technical specifications for Santa’s sleigh, he posits that the evidence presented indicates that the reindeer, because they were moving their legs and thus expending energy, constituted propulsion as nothing else on the sleigh seemed to be actively producing energy. Furthermore, Cunio likens Santa’s rhythm in calling the reindeers’ names to firing different thruster engines to steer, as with a similar flying object – a spaceship. It is Cunio’s considered opinion that Santa is an incredibly talented pilot. He navigates using a vision-based method (obviously, since he has to add a lighted reindeer during whiteout conditions) which is a challenging way to fly an object when used alone rather than in conjunction with other navigation aids.

Behaviorists have studied Twas the Night Before Christmas, too. One particular Behavioural Audit suggested that hanging the stockings by the fire, right there where Santa enters, is akin to stores stocking impulse buys at the entrance and the register. The Audit also accuses Santa of being a bit of a rebel. At night, when “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” Santa clatters around waking people up. When the kiddos go to bed and sleep “while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” it sets up huge expectations for Brand Santa to meet. There were no suggestions of latent maniacal tendencies as suggested by Dr. Sawyer (Miracle on 34th Street).

Bottom line – Twas the Night Before Christmas is HUGE in Christmas lore. Someday, maybe one of our stories will sell for $280,000. Meanwhile, I keep writing and editing.

Merry Christmas Eve to those who celebrate it and Happy Fourth Friday of December Eve to those who don’t.

7 thoughts on “Michille: Twas the Night Before Christmas

  1. Interesting Michille, I hadn’t realized there was controversy regarding who the “real” author was. I guess we’ll never really know for sure. All I do know is that this is a favorite poem of mine and one of the few I’ve ever memorized.

    Thanks for a fun post.

  2. Wow, Michille. I didn’t even know the poem was written by an American. Very impressed to learn that Santa’s an ace pilot. Now we need a physicist to tell us how he slows down time to get all those deliveries made in one night 😉 .

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from grey, rainy England!

    • It’s grey and rainy, here too (plus foggy). Going up to 70 today. That’s just not right where I am. It’s supposed to be cold, if not snowy. Dangit. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you. Happy writing, too.

  3. Love that poem! There’s a great jazzy version we sang in high school swing choir, too, and it runs through my head every year at this time. I think Manhattan Transfer covered it in their Christmas album. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAGCBZh2UkY

    Tried looking up Santa on Norad, but couldn’t figure out the new system. LOL, I guess Santa will just have to appear without being surveilled upon!

    Merry Christmas, my dears. The days get longer, the cold gets stronger.

    • I was too early earlier! My god, the Santa NORAD thing is AMAZING! I haven’t seen it for a few years, so I’m awed. Very good for young geographers. He’s heading to Japan in just a few minutes, so I best get to bed so he can come visit us. (Santa, baby, I’ve been very good all year. So, just drop my next scene down the chimney, and I’ll see if I can’t be good next year too!)


    • The version you posted is awesome (although I’m pretty sure I would have fallen off the risers if I had to jump around like that. Here is the link for Norad (http://www.noradsanta.org/). Your kids better be in bed – as of 9 a.m. EST, Santa is over Japan.

      It’s not getting colder here. I’ll be going for a run in a little while in shorts.

      Merry Christmas.

Let Us Know What You Think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s