Some will tell you that we don’t know who wrote ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was first published anonymously, but now we’re pretty sure we know who authored the famous Christmas poem.
Originally published in 1823 as “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” has become one of the most popular—and parodized—Christmas poems ever written. The poem, which has largely shaped the English-speaking world’s view of Santa Claus, was published anonymously.
However, a few years later Clement Clarke Moore accepted credit for the poem, at his children’s urging. He had tried to distance himself from the work solely because he wanted to be known for his more serious work. Unfortunately, while the fame of his poem has grown, Moore’s name is not nearly as well known.
Although Moore claimed authorship as early as 1837, there is still some dispute over whether he was the true author of the poem. It does seem like there is a preponderance of evidence in his favor, but it’s also worth mentioning that Henry Livingston, Jr., a relative of Moore’s wife, may also have been the author of the poem.
The poem largely influenced the way the English-speaking world viewed St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. The poem established the still-popular image of the “jolly old elf” as having rosy cheeks, having a belly “like a bowlful of jelly” and driving a sleigh with flying reindeer.
Of course, these ideas and others that influenced the poem didn’t spring into Moore’s mind from thin air. Much of his society of the day (early 1800s New York) was of Dutch ancestry, including Moore’s own wife. The Dutch influences are seen not only in the mythology of the poem (St. Nicholas bringing toys to children at night), but also in things as simple as the reindeer’s names—Donner and Blitzen were originally called Dunder and Blixem. These are Dutch words meaning ‘thunder,’ and ‘lightning,’ respectively, although their spellings have been replaced with their German equivalents in modern editions.
We may never know for certain who wrote the poem, but it remains a perennial Christmas classic.
Enjoy the classic illustrated The Night Before Christmas or a modern parody, Cajun Night Before Christmas.