Who really named Santa's reindeer? It's not who you thought.
A Kiwi literary detective best known for putting Shakespeare in his place has set to work on Santa Claus and his reindeer, and says he has proved that the man usually credited with writing "The Night Before Christmas", wasn't the true author.
But a New York antique book dealer reckons the new research from Auckland University emeritus professor MacDonald P Jackson disputing the authorship is the latest incarnation of a "zombie argument" – a claim that refuses to die despite evidence that it's untrue.
The poem, also known as "A Visit from St Nicholas", has been described as the best-known American poem ever written, and is the origin of many of the modern conceptions of Santa Claus, as well as the names of eight of his reindeer (Rudolph was a 20th-century addition).
"A Visit" is widely credited to 19th-century New York rich-lister and poet Clement Clarke Moore, and it even appeared in a collection of his works, but Jackson says more than a year's analysis of the phrases, words and sounds used in the poem prove almost beyond question that it is the work of Moore's contemporary Henry Livingston Jr, a claim that has been made by Livingston's relatives for more than a century.
The theory came to public prominence in 2002 when it was championed in a book by Don Foster, the academic who controversially outed US political journalist Joe Klein as author of the "anonymous" bestseller Primary Colors by using statistical comparisons of the book's text with other writings by Klein.
But leading New York antiquarian Seth Kaller, who once bought a manuscript of the poem for US$211,000, and on-sold it for an undisclosed sum, says his own research into "A Visit" shows Moore is indeed the author. He said although Jackson's new research appeared far more thorough than Foster's, he still isn't convinced.
He told Fairfax there are parallels between this dispute and the "zombie" claims of the American "birthers" who have refused to accept that Barack Obama was born in the US, despite clear documentary evidence that he was.
"For over 100 years, Livingston supporters have made statements and arguments and they've been disproved, and the arguments change, or somebody else makes them, and then they're disproved."
The poem was first published anonymously in New York's Troy Sentinel newspaper in 1823, and was frequently reprinted thereafter. It is credited with a swift transformation of the public conception of St Nicholas from a dour and morally upright saint to the now-familiar jolly, roly-poly chap with red cheeks and a twinkle in his eye.
In the 1950s America's first lady Bess Truman read the poem to children at a Washington DC hospital each Christmas, a tradition that has persisted to the current day. The poem has frequently been parodied or imitated, including in New Zealander Yvonne Morrison's hugely popular A Kiwi Night Before Christmas (2003), which is still in print.
Soon after its anonymous publication in 1823, Moore was rumoured to be the author, and in 1844 it appeared in an edition of his collected works. But Livingston family lore had it that Livingston had been reading the poem to his children as much as 15 years before the 1823 publication. The family went public with their version of events in 1899, and the dispute has rumbled along ever since.
According to the Livingston theory, Moore may have allowed the poem into his collected works because the rumour had gained such momentum it would have been embarrassing to disavow it publicly.
Jackson, 78, is internationally renowned for his lifelong research into the authorship of works attributed to Shakespeare and other 16th-century playwrights, and was one of the editors of The New Oxford Shakespeare, a edition which made headlines last month for crediting co-authorship of the Henry VI plays to Christopher Marlowe.
Jackson said while "A Visit" isn't exactly up there with "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as a piece of heavyweight poetry, it was a "very accomplished" piece of light children's verse that is "full of life and energy, and it kind of dances along".
His interest in it was first piqued by Foster's 2002 book, and he has since conducted a far more detailed analysis of the linguistic "signature" of the two possible authors, using a dozen statistical tests to analyse the vocabulary, word frequencies and "phoneme pairs" of the two men's writing, as evidenced in more than 50 well-attributed works by each poet.
When he compared that data with "The Night Before Christmas", every test independently identified Livingston as the author, not Moore. He has laid out his research in a book released by US academic publishers McFarland.
The book walks through the various arguments for each author, including rival theories on how the poem reached the Troy Sentinel. It also re-assesses Foster's analysis of the psychological differences between the two writers (Foster argued that Moore was a sternly moralistic conservative who couldn't have written something so joyous and uplifting, while Livingston fit the bill perfectly.)
But the core of Jackson's argument is the rigorously scientific evidence he gleaned by running statistical tests that were designed "to make sure you give each candidate an equal chance of coming out the winner". And Livingston won, fair and square.
Kaller, who speed-read Jackson's book through the New York night so he could discuss it with Fairfax, said it hadn't changed his view that Moore was indeed the author. On the contrary, it had left him "even more convinced that evidence should be weighed more heavily than arguments".
Kaller specialises in important American historical documents. His sales include a copy of the 13th amendment to the Constitution (which formally abolished slavery) signed by President Lincoln, and a copy of Albert Einstein's first scientific paper.
He said he wasn't expert in statistics so couldn't easily pick apart Jackson's maths, but in the areas where he was knowledgeable he saw flaws. For example in the 1823 version, one of the reindeer is called "Blixem" (the Dutch word for lightning) but Moore edited this to Blitzen (the German version of the word) in his 1844 collected works.
This is something Jacksons suggests bolsters Livingston's case, given he was of Dutch heritage and Moore wasn't. Kaller, by contrast, says the original word choice, and its later amendment, can just as easily be pinned on the wild variance in spelling of the time. He's recently been reading 1776 printings of the Declaration of Independence, and was struck by "all of the variations and mistakes in what publishers clearly understood to be one of the most important documents they would ever print".
Kaller says he was totally open-minded about the outcome when he first investigated the matter in response to Foster's 2002 book, but the evidence all pointed to Moore being the author. For him to change his mind now, he'd want to see tangible documentary evidence.
"A letter from Livingston actually claiming that he wrote it would go a long way."
If the Livingstonites did categorically win the argument, says Kaller, the value of Moore artefacts could be affected, but "that would make it one of the most interesting literary frauds in American history, so I'm not actually sure the value would fall. It may go up!"
Yvonne Morrison, author of the local 2004 bestseller A Kiwi Night Before Christmas, said she had no idea the authorship of the original was in dispute, but having briefly looked into the rival claims, she says its hard to decide which side to take, as there are plausible-sounding arguments for each.
"I think it's going to be a case of people making up their own mind."
Morrison wrote the Kiwi version – which replaces sugar plums with pavlova and reindeer with sheepdogs – in an hour during a bout of homesickness during a Christmas in Canada, and it remains her most successful published work.
If you type "Who wrote The Night Before Christmas?" into Google, Clement Moore's name confidently pops up. On the many hundreds of books containing the verse, it's invariably his name under the title. But some day, says Jackson, that will change, and Livingston will get his due recognition.
"I don't imagine the world at large cares enormously," he said, but to those who have some stake in it, such as Livingston's family, or Moore defenders like Seth Kaller, "it matters a lot".
From his many years investigating Shakespearean attribution, Jackson knows that building a new consensus over a work with disputed authorship can take a very long time.
In the case of Livingston, "I don't mind if it takes another 50 or 100 years to stick. But I do have the satisfaction of thinking that I've made the case about as strongly as it can be made."
* Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs Henry Livingston Question, by MacDonald P Jackson (McFarland, US$29.95)
* The Livingston descendants' website: www.henrylivingston.com
* Seth Kaller's antiquarian website: www.sethkaller.com