Walkabout: A Visit From St. Nicholas, a Troy Story

Visit from St. Nicholas, Troy Sentinel, 1823“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, the throng assembled and continued to come until Midnight. Why? Because they found out that the choicest variety of fine shirts, scarves, neck-ties, gloves, hosiery, etc, could be obtained at Pinder’s Fine Shirt Emporium. In addition to his already large assortment of every-day wear, a fresh stock of fashionable goods, for New Year’s presents and calls. Come early, or be crowded out, New Year’s Eve. Remember Pinder’s, 193 Fulton Street, between Nassau and Concord, and the old stand, 163 Fulton Street, opposite Cranberry.” Brooklyn Eagle, December 1869.

On December 23, 1823, a newspaper called the Troy Sentinel, published in upstate Troy, New York, was the first to publish a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” written by an anonymous author. The poem caught fire, and was reprinted in newspapers, magazines and broadsheets for over 190 years, up until today, where someone, somewhere, will reprint it once again this Christmas season. Most of us can recite at least a few of the lines, and if nothing else, can name the reindeer. Perhaps because we’ve grown up with it for so long, we don’t realize what a huge effect this small poem had on American culture.

A scan of the original page of the Troy Sentinel shows the poem, which is really quite short, on the fifth column of the paper, hidden amongst local news, world affairs, a wedding announcement, and right next to a lengthy explanation of a new bill that would determine where and how Troy buried its dead. Merry Christmas! Troy was a fast growing city, a major terminus for goods and foodstuffs coming from New England, on their way down the Hudson River to New York City. Uncle Sam Wilson’s butcher shop was here, a reminder of Troy’s role in supplying American troops during the War of 1812. It was a perfect place to publish what would be an epic poem of great proportions.

Local lore has it that the poem made its way to the Sentinel via a friend of Clement Clark Moore, who is generally recognized as the author of the poem. But Moore’s authorship has always had an asterisk next to it, as there is another man who may have been the author – upstater Henry Livingston, Jr. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s look at what this poem did for the legend of Santa Claus.

Christmas, of course, was instituted to celebrate the birth of Christ. But for many centuries, especially after Cromwell’s England, it was a serious affair. But then popular culture finally took over. The modern celebration of Christmas in America has many religious and ethnic traditions involved in it, but two of the biggest secular components are Charles Dickens and his London, as depicted in “A Christmas Carol,” and “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The visit from St. Nick came before Marley’s ghost visited Scrooge that Christmas Eve.

From this little poem, the modern Santa Claus was born. His sleigh, his portly appearance, the gifts, and the most enduring part of the legend; those reindeer, and the whole “St. Nick” legend. Most people in America had never even seen a reindeer, but they were soon as American as Uncle Sam. It’s rather amazing to think this was all invented in 1823, before New York State had even abolished slavery in the state, an event that didn’t occur until four years later.

Of course, a closer look at the details of Santa Claus reveals his European roots. St. Nicholas, as most of us know, was an early Greek Bishop, the patron saint of sailors and others, known for his giving of gifts. As the centuries passed, he became a popular saint in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy and, of course, Greece. The Netherlands especially celebrated St. Nicholas, and when the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam, they bought their traditions with them.

St. Nicholas traditionally was an old man with a long white beard who dressed in a red cape, over a traditional bishop’s vestments, with a red bishop’s miter hat. He carried a book which told who was good and who was bad, and left coins and gifts in the wooden shoes put out the night before his arrival. Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, in Dutch, became Santa Claus.

Back to the poem. For many years, the poem was published at Christmas without an author. That would never happen today, the author would have cleaned up on the merchandizing rights alone. But in 1837, word got out that it had been penned by Clement Clark Moore, the son of the Episcopal Bishop of New York, and in his own right, a respected Medieval scholar, and professor of Divinity. Moore’s family was very wealthy, from before the Revolutionary War, and owned the land that’s now part of the West Village on north through to Chelsea, which was the name of the Moore family estate. He donated a portion of that land to build the General Theological Seminary, where he taught, and was associated with, for the rest of his life.

Moore was said to have written the poem for his children, based on the appearance of a Dutch handyman he employed, as well as the Sinterklaas legend. Because he was a distinguished and serious scholar, it’s said he didn’t want it known that he had written it, but in 1844, he owned it, and for the first time, included it in a collection of poems he had published. It’s interesting how modern Santa Claus owes so much to the poem, although he was depicted as a tiny man, with tiny reindeer, and the whole flying thing was never discussed. He’s also called St. Nicholas, not Santa. But, anyway…

The reindeer’s names are pure Dutch, although “Dunder and Blixem” in the original, became the German “Donder and Blixen” when the poem was reprinted in the early 20th century. Both names mean “Thunder and Lightning,” although the German word for thunder is “donner”, but let’s not quibble. Today, we remember Clement Clark Moore not for his work as a great biblical scholar, and Episcopalian teacher and seminarian, but as the author of this fanciful folk tale, which helped steal the holiday away from the celebration of Christ’s birth to the Yuletide shopping fest that is modern Christmas. But wait, it might not have even been Moore’s poem!

Professor Donald Wayne Foster, a “forensic linguist” at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie has been among those making the claim that Moore took credit for a poem that was actually written by another man, Major Henry Livingston, Jr. Livingston, who lived in Poughkeepsie, was a Revolutionary War veteran and gentleman farmer. He was also distantly related to Clement Moore’s wife. He was also a poet, and had a Dutch mother, and was well aware of the Sinterklaas traditions and lore. Although he never took credit for the poem himself, his children swore that he read it to them years before it appeared in the Sentinel, and the family has adamantly held that Livingston was the real author.

Professor Foster analyzed Livingston’s other poems as well as Moore’s and determined that the style of the poem much better matched Livingston’s style. The Livingston camp also insists that Moore would never have written about St. Nicholas’ fondness for a pipe, as Moore hated tobacco and smoking. There are other clues, as well. Although Moore is still given official credit for the poem, Livingston’s name appears as a footnote everywhere and perhaps always will. You’ll have to choose your own side.

Here in Brooklyn, the poem has influenced Christmas in the city for as long as it has been published. By the late 1860s, it was as much a part of Christmas as the Dickens tale of Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim. “A Christmas Carol” was published in America in 1863, and helped revitalize Christmas in England as well as here. Generosity to the poor, spending the holiday with family and friends, and a good meal served with all the fixings became an American tradition, too. The German tradition of decorating a tree was added to the Christmas celebration.

Add “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and American Christmas was born. It took American retailers no time at all to add Christmas sales to the tradition, as evidenced in our first paragraph. It took a political cartoonist Thomas Nast to give us an illustration in 1863, depicting Santa Claus as a round, jolly bearded individual, laden with toys. Nast also placed his home at the North Pole, expanding the legend even further. 1897’s editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” sealed the legend for the ages.

And what better way to start than with “Twas the night before Christmas…”

ADDENDUM: A jury trial that seeks to finally determine the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is going to take place in the city that first published the poem. Livingston v. Moore will take place on Wednesday, December 18, at 6 pm, as two noted Troy attorneys will square off before a judge, jury and spectators at the Rensselear County Courthouse, at 80 Second Street in downtown Troy, to determine the literal truth. From the press release by Duncan Crary, who is the event’s host:

“Representing Moore is upstate New York’s preeminent litigator, E. Stewart Jones, Jr. On the side of Livingston will be Troy novelist and attorney Jack Casey, author of “The Trial of Bat Shea,” and his daughter, attorney Molly Casey of Albany law firm Thuillez, Ford, Gold, Butler & Monroe. Both sides have a tenured history of law practice in the city.

A third-generation lawyer, Jones heads the E. Stewart Jones Law Firm. The prestigious Troy firm was established in 1898 by his grandfather, Abbott Jones, who famously defended Prohibition gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond in an infamous Dec. 17, 1931 trial in the same courtroom where “Livingston v. Moore” will be tried.

The trial’s ornate setting will be The John T. Casey Ceremonial Court, named for Jack Casey’s father who served there as State Supreme Court Justice.”

I’ll be there, and will report as to the outcome of the trial. Actors playing both Moore and Livingston will give testimony, and cold hard forensic evidence will be presented by historians, scholars, and other know-it-alls. It should be great fun. For more information, see this link. Come on up, we’ve got a foot of snow, it’s Christmas time, the city of Troy is beautiful, and it’s free!

(Scan of part of original copy of 1823 Troy Sentinel publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Image courtesy Gramercy Communications.)

Troy Sentinel plaque

Troy Sentinel Building, on right. RIver Street, Troy.

Troy Sentinel Building, on right. River Street, Troy

Rensselear County Courthouse,. Photo: Tonya Massey for TRM Photos, by permission

Rensselear County Courthouse. Photo: Tonya Massey for TRM Photos, by permission

2 Comment

  • Thanks MM! This is terrific, concise history of the poem, its culturally legacy, and its controversy! I’ve been in the Livingston camp for years, but I think the Court Case sounds like great fun as way of discussing it further. Moore wrote some dry, plodding poetry, and A Visit from St. Nicholas is very far removed from his style. However, Livingston wrote at least 2 other poems with the exact same meter, and he had the knowledge, as well as the enthusiasm, of the Dutch-influenced holiday which Moore surely lacked. The oddest part was; Moore’s letters to the Troy Sentinel were preserved in their archives, and each simply asked if the author of this poem had ever come forward! Livingston himself died in 1828, so there was little chance of contradiction if Moore claimed credit 9 years later.

  • Arkady

    Super piece!
    Added note: the Christmas tree was a German tradition that was popularized in England by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert. It was then transplanted over here.