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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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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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