Local family: Our ancestor wrote 'Night Before Christmas'

Local family: Our ancestor wrote 'Night Before Christmas'

North Providence resident Jeanne Betancur is one of those who claims that her sixth great grandfather Henry Livingston Jr. wrote "The Night Before Christmas." She's holding an undated copy of the poem. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Jury agrees; Troy mayor declares Dec. 23 'Henry Livingston Jr. Day'

NORTH PROVIDENCE - "The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads."

These could only be the words of a "playful and happy" man who loved children, say the ancestors of Maj. Henry Livingston Jr., and not of a serious-minded and "self-obsessed" man who showed little but contempt for young people.

Jeanne Betancur, of North Providence, is the sixth great-granddaughter of Livingston, and she and her relatives say they're "100 percent" convinced that it was the farmer Livingston, and not the biblical scholar Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote the famous poem "The Night Before Christmas."

Evidence of Livingston's authorship long lay dormant in libraries across the country, Betancur told The Breeze, but the case for Livingston over Moore has burst into the public view in recent years as various collections have blossomed on the web.

"It's impossible that Moore wrote it," said Betancur. "My ancestor and sixth great-grandfather Maj. Henry Livingston Jr. was the real author of 'The Night Before Christmas.'"

In what one local media outlet called "a stunning decision," a jury in Troy, N.Y., unanimously declared after a mock trial there on Dec. 7 that it was Livingston who wrote the famous poem. An inaugural mock trial in December 2013 ended with a hung jury.

The jury considered numerous pieces of evidence over two boisterous hours of testimony, including:

* Moore's initial reluctance to claim authorship of the poem.

* The stylistic similarities between "Night Before Christmas" and Livingston's other poems, including frequent use of "all" as an adverb and "Happy Christmas" as an expression.

* And the claims of those close to Livingston that he was reading his poem aloud more than 30 years before Moore first published it.

Betancur said it was a gratifying experience seeing the jury announce that the evidence presented overwhelmingly pointed to Livingston as the author.

At the conclusion of the light-hearted "Trial Before Christmas," in which an actor played the ghost of Henry Livingston himself, Troy Mayor Lou Rosamilia proclaimed Dec. 23 to be "Henry Livingston Jr. Day."

Read Rosamilia's proclamation with this story at www.valleybreeze.com .

Betancur said her aunt, Mary Van Deusen, of Wrentham, Mass., is passing her love of researching the authorship topic on to her, and she plans to keep it going with her own daughter, Isabel.

"The Night Before Christmas," which was originally known as "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," was first published anonymously in a Troy newspaper in 1823. Moore wouldn't end up taking credit for the poem until 1837, nine years after Livingston's death.

Van Deusen, who was the plaintiff in the Troy trial, and her husband, Paul Kosinski, have researched the evidence on the poem's authorship since Van Deusen became aware of the controversy back in 1999. Experts have argued for almost 100 years about who wrote the poem, but she said more and more of them are now coming behind Livingston as the true author.

Professor MacDonald Jackson, who is completing an extensive statistical authorship analysis on the poem, says that "every test, so far applied, associates 'The Night Before Christmas' more closely with Livingston's verse than with Moore's."

Moore, according to Van Deusen, wrote so darkly about Christmas and children, that he simply could not have been the writer of the famous poem. This is a man who wrote about "the devil seeing the soul of a newborn child," she said.

Both Livingston and Moore were men of faith, she said, but Moore had trouble seeing the good in anything.

Van Deusen said another strong piece of evidence for Livingston as the author was that Moore repeated an 1830 editing error that renamed the reindeer "Dunder and Blixem" as "Donder and Blitzen."

"Dunder and Blixem," the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, were used as a common oath in the New York Dutch community, and were a particular favorite of Livingston's. There is a claim by one of Livingston's descendants that "Dunder and Blixem" were actually named for two horses in his stable.

There is a complex science to analyzing a poem against everything else a writer has written, said Van Deusen. Jackson offered some "minor examples" of some of the evidence he's collected over a year of researching "The Night Before Christmas" and the other works of both men.

"It has been known for a long time that authors tend to differ in their rates of use of very common words, such as 'the,' 'and,' and 'to,'" he wrote in his most recent report. "Moore was much fonder of 'that' than Livingston was, using it, on an average, almost twice as often: 12.2 times per 1,000 words, to Livingston's 6.3.

"Of course the rate of use varies in both poets from poem to poem, but the low rate for 'The Night Before Christmas' of 1.8 is not unusual for a Livingston poem, but extremely unusual for a Moore poem," said Jackson. "In the new Moore poems, from his manuscript notebook, 'that' continues to be used at Moore's high rates."

It was the late 1990s when Van Deusen first enlisted Vassar College professor Don Foster to analyze the poem to determine the author. Foster ended up writing a book, "Author Unknown," offering evidence that Livingston was the author.

One of the biggest pieces of evidence, according to Foster, was that the poem was entirely inconsistent with everything else Moore ever wrote.

"The world, as represented in Professor Moore's Poems," he wrote in his book, "is a place inhabited by loud children, frivolous maids, scolding wives, loud children, (lazy mechanics), soft-spoken rogues, rude barflies, lewd coquettes and prostitutes, rich men ill-clad, loud children, dull schoolmen, manly-treading female would-be-scholars, and loud children - all of whom must be scolded: the little ones, with patience, and the adults, who ought to know better, with sneering sarcasm."

Livingston, who along with being a writer was a farmer, surveyor, justice of the peace and member of the Revolutionary Army, was a father of 12 and always seemed to capture the joy of children in his writings, according to Van Deusen.

One certainly has to wonder why a man like Moore, who despised smoking, would have St. Nick smoking a pipe in his poem, she said, but Livingston would have happily included such a vice.

In a People Magazine story back in 2000, Vassar said that Moore, a wealthy New York City biblical scholar, took credit for the poem in 1844, but only after writing to a Troy newspaper to ask if anyone could remember its origin.

Those who maintain that Moore was the author of the poem contend that the scholar wasn't the type to lie or promote himself.

"Moore was not a self-aggrandizing fellow," said University of Massachusetts historian Stephen Nissenbaum in the People Magazine story. "He had a real disdain for the vulgarity of self-promotion."

According to a research website maintained by Van Deusen and Kosinski, www.henrylivingston.com , children of Livingston said in historical documents that he first started reading his poem to them during the three years from 1807 to 1809.

Sometime between 1809 and 1822, a governess visiting the Livingstons took a copy of the poem with her when she visited the Moore family, according to the historical accounts.

In December of 1822, Moore read the poem to his children as his own. He tells them not to let it out of the house, but one of the children lets 12-year-old Harriet Butler of Troy make a copy of the poem.

Sometime before December 1823, Butler gave a copy of the poem to Mrs. Daniel Sackett, who brought it to The Troy Sentinel, where it was published for the first time, without a name attached, in 1823.

In January of 1828, a copy of "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" was published in The Poughkeepsie Journal still using the original Dutch reindeer names "Dunder and Blixem." Livingston, who was Dutch, died a month later.

In December of 1830, "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" was published in The Troy Sentinel with 55 changes made by the paper's editor from the 1823 version, including the switch away from "Dunder and Blixem."

Between 1823 and 1844, Moore's children encouraged their father to take credit for the poem, according to Van Deusen.

In 1837, Moore's friend Charles Hoffman attributed the poem to Moore. Seven years later, in 1844, Moore wrote to Troy Sentinel Publisher Norm Tuttle asking if he knew who wrote the poem when it was published in 1823.

Tuttle wrote back that he didn't know at the time, but had since been informed that it was Moore. Foster considers that letter from Tuttle as Moore's "coast is clear" letter, said Van Deusen, allowing him to take credit.

An 1830 broadsheet of the poem was included with the letter back to Moore, who would apparently use it to write his 1844 version of "Night Before Christmas" published in his book "Poems." During his later years, he often repeated the claim that he was the author of the poem.

It wasn't until the 1850s that Livingston's family became aware of Moore's authorship claim, and they wouldn't make their own claim about Livingston writing it until 1900.

One motivation Moore might have had for claiming the poem as his own was his longstanding desire to be famous for his writing, said Van Deusen. He repeatedly failed, as scholars leveled their biting critiques. How odd, said Van Deusen, that Moore didn't claim the poem in 1823 after it was initially published and word of it spread. Instead of coming forward and saying, "how wonderful something I did is famous," she said, he was instead focused on telling of all the "much more important stuff" he was writing.

Van Deusen also wonders: What author would allow that many editorial changes without being forced? Moore was a notorious stickler for grammar and spelling, she said, making it highly unlikely that he was responsible for such an awkwardly written first version in 1823.

Unlike Moore, Livingston's poems exhibit spontaneous composition that occasionally "sacrifices correctness for vitality," said Van Deusen, which is why the newspaper editor saw fit to make so many edits.

Betancur and Van Deusen say their ultimate goal is to get definitive recognition for Livingston as the author of "The Night Before Christmas."

For much more on the research done by Van Deusen and others, as well as hundreds of photos and videos, visit www.henrylivingston.com .


The 1823 version of 'The Night Before Christmas'

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap -

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprung from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:

"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,

"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of Toys - and St. Nicholas too:

And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:

He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:

His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face, and a little round belly

That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jirk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

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.

Henry Livingston Jr.
These descendants of Henry Livingston Jr. say it was Livingston who wrote "The Night Before Christmas," and not Clement Clarke Moore. From left are Isabel Betancur and her mom Jeanne Betancur, of North Providence, and Mary Van Deusen and her husband Paul Kosinski, of Wrentham, Mass.
Clement Clarke Moore