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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Shout! Factory
10 Surprising Facts About Mr. Mom
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Shout! Factory

John Hughes penned the script for 1983's Mr. Mom, a comedy about a family man named Jack Butler (Micheal Keaton) who loses his job. To ensure their three kids are taken care of, his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), goes back to work—leaving Jack to fight off a vacuum cleaner and learn why it's never a good idea to feed chili to a baby.

In 1982, Keaton turned in a star-making role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift, but Mr. Mom marked the first time he headlined a movie, and it launched his career. Hughes had written National Lampoon's Vacation, which—oddly enough—was released in theaters the weekend after Mr. Mom. But Hughes himself was still a relative unknown, as it would be another year before he entered the teen flick phase of his career, which would make him iconic.

In the meantime, Mr. Mom hit home for a lot of viewers, as the economy was on the downturn and more and more women were entering (or reentering) the workforce. But some people think that the movie's ending—which sees the couple revert to traditional gender roles—sidelined the movie's message. Still, on the 35th anniversary of its release, Mr. Mom remains an ahead-of-its-time comedy classic.

1. IT'S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Mr. Mom producer Lauren Shuler Donner came across a funny article John Hughes had written for National Lampoon. Based on that, she contacted him and the two became friends. “One day, he was telling me that his wife had gone down to Arizona and he was in charge of the two boys and he didn’t know what he was doing,” Donner told IGN. “It was hilarious! I was on the floor laughing. He said, ‘Do you think this would make a good movie?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this is really funny.’ So he said, ‘Well, I have about 80 pages in a drawer. Would you look at it?’ So I looked at it and I said, ‘This is great! Let’s do it!’ We kind of developed it ourselves.” In the book Movie Moguls Speak, Donner mentioned how Hughes “had never been to a grocery store, he had never operated a vacuum cleaner. John was so ignorant, that in his ignorance, he was hilarious.”

The players involved with the movie told Donner and Hughes they thought it should be a TV movie. Hughes had a TV deal with Aaron Spelling, who came aboard to executive produce. “Then the players involved were upset because John was writing out of Chicago instead of L.A.,” Donner said in Movie Moguls Speak. “They fired John and brought in a group of TV writers. In the end, John and I were muscled out. It was a good movie, but if you ever read John’s original script for Mr. Mom, it’s far better.”

2. JOHN HUGHES REJECTED THE IDEA OF DIRECTING MR. MOM.

Stan Dragoti ended up directing the film, but only after Hughes turned it down, because he preferred to make his movies in Chicago, not Hollywood. “I don’t like being around the people in the movie business,” Hughes told Roger Ebert. “In Hollywood, you spend all of your time having lunch and making deals. Everybody is trying to shoot you down. I like to get my actors out here where we can make our movies in privacy.” Hughes remained in Chicago and filmed his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, there.

3. MICHAEL KEATON GOT THE ROLE BECAUSE OF NIGHT SHIFT.

In 1982’s Night Shift, Keaton’s character works at a morgue and starts a prostitution ring with co-worker Henry Winkler. Donner had an agent friend, Laurie Perlman, who represented the not-yet-famous actor. She contacted Donner and pitched Keaton to her. “’Look, I represent this guy who is really funny. Would you meet with him?’" Donner recalled of the conversation. "So I met with him. Usually I don’t like to do this unless we’re casting, but I met with him because she was my friend. And then she said, ‘You have to see this movie Night Shift that he’s in.’ So I went to see Night Shift, and midway through I couldn’t wait to get out of that theater to give Mr. Mom to Michael Keaton. Fortunately, he liked it."

Keaton told Grantland that he turned down one of the main roles in Splash to play Jack Butler. “I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I’d just done on Night Shift,” he said. “I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck. So then Mr. Mom came along. So I said no [to Splash] so I could set up this framework right away where I could do different things.”

4. THE FILM BROKE NEW GROUND.

Teri Garr, Michael Keaton, Taliesin Jaffe, Frederick Koehler, and Martin Mull in Mr. Mom (1983)
Shout! Factory

In 1983, more women stayed at home than worked, so it was a novelty for a man to be a stay-at-home dad. Today, an estimated 1.4 million men are stay-at-home dads, and 7 million men are their children's primary caregiver. “Mr. Mom became part of the vernacular,” Donner told Newsweek. “Mr. Mom represented a segment of men who were at home dealing with the kids who, up until then, really hadn’t been heard from. That’s what really told me about the power of film, because it spoke for a lot of men. It also helped women, because I think that women sometimes, if you’re a housewife, you’re not really appreciated for what you do. This sort of made women feel better about what they did because they knew that men were understanding it.”

5. TODAY, “MR. MOM” IS CONSIDERED A PEJORATIVE TERM.

More than 30 years after the film’s release, stay-at-home dads feel the term “Mr. Mom” should die. The National At-Home Dad Network launched a campaign to terminate the phrase and instead have people refer to men as “Dad.” In 2014 Lake Superior State University voted to banish “Mr. Mom” from the lexicon.

“At least, the pop-culture image of the inept dad who wouldn’t know a diaper genie from a garbage disposal has begun to fade,” wrote The Wall Street Journal, after declaring “Mr. Mom is dead.”

6. TERI GARR DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS A MESSAGE MOVIE.

The movie redefined gender roles, but when the producers pitched the premise to Garr, they hid the plot reversal. “They just told me it was about a guy who does the work that a woman does, because it’s so easy,” she told The A.V. Club. “And I went, ‘Oh, yeah. Ha ha.’ It’s so easy. All the women I know who stay home and take care of their kids, they go, ‘Oh yeah, this is easy.’ Hmm.”

7. MARTIN MULL IMPROVISED THE “220, 221” LINE.

The quote everyone remembers from the movie comes from Jack, holding a chainsaw, standing next to Ron Richardson (Martin Mull) and discussing what kind of wiring Jack will use in renovating the house: “220, 221, whatever it takes,” Jack says.

“We’re doing the scene and it was okay,” Keaton told Esquire. “And I remember saying to the prop guy, ‘Go find me a chainsaw.’ When he comes back with it, he says, ‘You wanna wear these?’ And he holds up some goggles. I go, ‘Yeah.’ You know, they make me look crazy. And when Martin shows up, I know I should look under control, I’m not sweating it. I’m a dude. So we’re standing there, Martin pulls me aside and says, ‘You know what you ought to say? When I ask about the wiring, you oughta just deadpan: ‘220, 221.’ I died. It was perfect. I may have added ‘whatever it takes.’ But it was his.”

“That was a little ad-lib that we just threw in, but every carpenter or construction person I’ve ever worked with, they’re always quoting that line from Mr. Mom,” Mull told The A.V. Club.

8. MR. MOM OUTGROSSED HUGHES’S OTHER 1983 SUMMER MOVIE—VACATION.

Mr. Mom only opened on 126 screens on July 22, 1983, but managed to gross $947,197 during its opening weekend. Once the film went wide a month later to 1235 screens, it hit number one at the box office and spent five weeks at the top. By the end of its run, the film had grossed just shy of $65 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1983 (just between Staying Alive and Risky Business). National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes’s other film that summer, came out July 29 and ended its theatrical run with $61,399,552 (at its height, it showed on 1248 screens). Vacation finished the year in 11th place.

9. THE MOVIE LED TO HUGHES BEING CALLED “A PURVEYOR OF HORNY SEX COMEDIES.”

During a 1986 interview with Seventeen magazine, Molly Ringwald asked the writer-director why he never showed teen sex in Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. “In Sixteen Candles, I figured it would only be gratuitous to show Samantha and Jake in anything more than a kiss,” he said. “The kiss is the most beautiful moment. I was really amused when someone once called me a ‘purveyor of horny sex comedies.’ He listed The Breakfast Club and Mr. Mom in parentheses. I thought, ‘What kind of sex?’ Yes, in Mr. Mom there’s a baby in a bathtub and you see its bare butt.”

10. MR. MOM WAS MADE INTO A TV MOVIE AFTER ALL.

In the beginning, producers wanted Mr. Mom to be a TV movie, not a feature film. But a year after the film came out in theaters, ABC produced a TV movie called Mr. Mom, with the same characters and premise. Barry Van Dyke played Jack and Rebecca York played Caroline. A People magazine review of the movie stated: “They and their three kids are immediately likable … But it goes downhill from there as the script lobotomizes all its characters. Here’s a textbook case in how TV takes a cute idea—and a script that does have some good lines—and leeches the wit out of it.”

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Prepositions in Band Names
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