On Dec. 24, many households in Chesterfield will be listening to or reading The Night Before Christmas. For generations, this has been a child's first glimpse into how Santa Claus looks, acts, and calls his eight reindeer.
In 1823, it was originally published as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” but anonymously. It was not until 1837 that it was attributed in print to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). Ironically, he would not confirm or deny this until 1844 when he contributed it and several other works to an analogue of poems in The New-York Book of Poetry.
Moore was a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning. He was known for his scholarly publications and conservative political views. Apparently, he acknowledged authorship of this little ditty after being pressured by some of his nine children. After all, it was a much-repeated family story. He claimed to have written it at his cousin’s home solely for his children’s amusement and to have first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.
However, there was another family story just as compelling. The family of Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), a distant relative of Moore’s wife, claimed the Major wrote the poem fifteen years earlier than the published date. However, the documented proof was lost in a house fire. Thus, scholars have spent decades debating its authorship. The verses and content have been analyzed with conflicting results. The most recent commentary was published in 2016. It was done through computational stylistics with a statistical analysis of phonemes in New Zealand, and firmly puts the ball in Livingston’s court. But don’t expect the authorship to change anytime soon; Moore still has a dedicated following.
Historical Societies are the treasury trove of family stories shared with communities. Chesterfield Historical Society is no different. Our collection is full of stories woven through books, items, papers, and pictures. We love to hear them and collect them. May this holiday season add to your family's stories. After all, 2020 is truly a unique time that will be remembered for generations.
Photo: The Farm's Santa Claus, a Chakalos Family tradition on Pond Brook Rd.