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The Mystery Behind the World's Most Famous Christmas Poem

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It's a literary mystery: Nearly 200 years after it was published in New York's Troy Sentinel, we still don't know who really wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

When it first appeared in the newspaper on December 23, 1823, there was no name attached to it. It wasn't until 13 years later that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and poet, was named as the author. A story emerged that a housekeeper had, without Moore’s knowledge, sent the piece—which he had written for his kids—to the newspaper, and in 1844, the poem was officially included in an anthology of Moore's work.

The problem? The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., claimed their father had been reciting "A Visit From St. Nicholas" to them for 15 years before it was published. Here's the view from both sides.

THE LIVINGSTON ARGUMENT

Livingston's Dutch background is a key component in this mystery. His mother was Dutch, and many references in the poem are as well. For example, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is likely where we got the popular names for Santa's reindeer—there seems to be no reference to their names prior to the poem. A couple of the names have skewed slightly over the years; instead of Donner and Blitzen, the latter two reindeer recited were called "Dunder" and "Blixem," the Dutch words for "Thunder" and "Lightning." (These days, the spellings have changed slightly to "donder" and "bliksem.")

According to proponents of this hypothesis, Blixem first became Blixen to better rhyme with Vixen, and then, in 1844, Moore changed it to the more German Blitzen. Dunder would become Donder, and then, in the early 20th century, was changed to Donner to match Blitzen’s new German name. (Clement Moore proponents counter that the original editor of the poem may have altered the names to better fit a pseudo-Dutch framework, and Moore was simply changing them back to the original.)

Also piling up in the case against Moore is the fact that at least four of Livingston's children and even a neighbor girl said they remembered Henry telling them the tale of St. Nick as early as 1807. They even said they had evidence—a dated, handwritten copy of the original poem with revisions and scratch marks all throughout. Unfortunately, the house containing this gem burned down, taking the Livingston family's proof with it.

When a professor from Vassar analyzed poetry by both authors, he declared that there was virtually no possible way Moore could have written "A Visit from St. Nicholas." According to the professor, the style of the Christmas favorite was completely different—both structurally and content-wise—than anything else Moore had ever written. But the anapestic scheme used matched up with some of Livingston's work perfectly.

Earlier this year, a New Zealand professor wrote a book where he tackled this question by applying complex statistical analysis to works by both authors. He found that “if we did not know whether the poems in Moore’s manuscript notebook were by him or by Livingston, our full range of tests would, in combination, categorize every one of them as much more probably Moore’s. In this they contrast sharply with ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ which is consistently associated more closely with Livingston.” But the Moore camp usually argues that these studies are constructed in such a way that they would always discount Moore, especially through ignoring works like “The Pig & The Rooster,” which is anapestic. The Livingston camp dismisses it and another anapestic poem by saying, “If Moore wrote ‘The Night Before Christmas’ he displayed in it a facility that deserted him in his efforts in the same meter both at about the same time and a decade later.”

THE MOORE ARGUMENT

Aside from the obvious fact that Moore stepped forward to take credit first, one big key seems to be his relationship with Rip Van Winkle author Washington Irving.

In Irving's A History of New York, he referred to St. Nick as "riding over the tops of the trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." And "when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose," he got in his wagon and disappeared.

Familiar, huh? Clement Moore being good friends with Irving might help explain some of the Dutch references in the poem—Irving was quite involved in the Dutch culture and traditions of New York state.

There's still no definitive proof for either writer, though. To this day, it's just one family's word against the other's. Clement Clarke Moore is the author who usually gets the credit for the classic, and it will likely remain that way unless Livingston's descendants can prove otherwise.

A version of the piece originally ran in 2012.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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