The intrigue behind Santa’s reindeer
Being born and raised in the inner city, I was disappointed to learn that chipmunks were not monkeys at all. They are, in fact, mice with racing stripes.
Funny how our perceptions of wildlife evolve.
Take reindeer, for instance. As children growing up in the Lower Forty-eight, we first learned about reindeer through Christmas lore. I suspect that many of us never gave them a second thought. At least not until we watched film footage of actual reindeer on nature shows or saw them in a zoo.
For our first impressions of reindeer, we have one of two men to thank: Clement Clark Moore or Henry Livingston Jr. Both claimed to have written the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” You might know it as “The Night before Christmas.” It was first published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in eastern New York State.
This iconic poem introduced the notion of Santa’s flying sleigh towed by “eight tiny reindeer.” The addition of Rudolph in 1939 made it nine. Robert Lewis May gets credit for that; Rudolph was his creation. As far as I know, no one has ever challenged May’s claim that he wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Although there’s been some speculation that May based his story on an old joke about a Russian couple arguing over the weather — the one with the punch line “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”
However, the controversy over the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” drags on. The Moore and Livingston families are locked in a literary feud to this day. (In a previous column, my parody of “The Night before Christmas,” I mentioned both men with apologies — lest I find myself dragged into the fray.)
Moore, a poet and professor, was the first to take credit for “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” That was 13 years after it appeared in the Sentinel. Then, in 1844, he included it in a book of his poetry.
It probably didn’t help Moore’s case that — before claiming authorship in 1836 — he had contacted the newspaper asking whether anyone had taken credit for writing the poem.
Livingston was a judge and poet. His progeny — and at least one academic — pointed out that Moore wasn’t known for being a light-hearted chap, not the sort of guy who would write a whimsical children’s poem. They also claimed the reindeer’s names were of Dutch lineage — like Livingston himself.
Furthermore, Livingston’s children claimed that he had recited the poem to them in the early 1800s.
Legions of scholars — or a handful, at least — have been enlisted in the fight. In their arguments for or against Moore and Livingston, they have delved into the minutiae of each man’s writing style. Which poet preferred the anapestic meter used in “A Visit from St. Nick?” Which author tended to use “all” as an adverb? Which one dotted his “i’s” with tiny circles?
The whole affair conjures up images of a Mafia-style family feud. I can picture drive-by poetry slams on urban street corners in which members of the Moore or Livingston camp crumple to the pavement in a hail of iambic pentameters.
To avoid being dragged into the feud, in my parody I opted to go with carp pulling the sleigh. I, for one, don’t want to wake up some night to find a reindeer head in my bed.
This was originally written as one of my weekly outdoors columns for GateHouse Media.