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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Mystery Behind the World's Most Famous Christmas Poem

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
iStock
iStock

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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