New Brunswick

'Donder and Blixem?': Mystery New Brunswick manuscript of 'The Night Before Christmas'

A world-famous Christmas poem has an unexpected New Brunswick link.

Papers from Fredericton family contain handwritten manuscript of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas

A handwritten copy of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, pictured, found in the papers of the Odell family in Fredericton, contains a number of differences from the poem most readers know, including the reindeer names 'Donder' and 'Blixem.' (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

The city of Fredericton has a quaint magic at Christmastime.

Crisp snow blanketing the frozen St. John River. Candles glowing in Victorian churches. Frost crystals painting the windowpanes of historic homes. 

It's appropriate the best-known Christmas poem written in English has a mysterious connection to New Brunswick's capital.  

Fredericton is home to heavy snowfalls, historic homes and picturesque churches. (Shane Fowler / CBC)

'Twas The Night Before Christmas — originally titled A Visit From St. Nicholas and published anonymously in the Sentinel of Troy, N.Y., in 1823 — is usually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a U.S. writer and professor.

In the collection of Odell family documents held by the New Brunswick Museum, there is a unique, handwritten copy of A Visit From St. Nicholas, with a 1824 watermark, as well as several letters from Moore to Fredericton politician and clergyman Jonathan Odell.

Archival assistant Christine Little holds the manuscript of A Visit from St. Nicholas beside a letter from Moore to Jonathan Odell. The differences in the handwriting suggest the poem was copied out by a member of the Odell family, likely Jonathan's daughter Mary. (Julia Wright/ CBC)

Moore's poem was key in popularizing the image of St. Nicholas as a "jolly old elf" who delivers presents to children on Christmas Eve.

It was the first time St. Nicholas was described as riding a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. (Rudolph wouldn't come along until much later.)

Nineteenth-century American book illustration for the poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (1779-1863). (Corbis/Getty Images)

Family friendship

Jonathan Odell was a well-known Loyalist, secret agent, and propaganda writer, and the first provincial secretary of New Brunswick.

His family name survives to the present in Odell Park, formerly part of the family's estate.  

Odell had befriended Moore's parents, Bishop Benjamin Moore and Charity Clarke Moore, in New York. When Clement was born in 1779, Odell was chosen as his godfather.

Even after the Odell family left New York to come to Fredericton with the Loyalists in 1784, Jonathan continued corresponding with the Moores.  

A watercolour portrait of Jonathan Odell from the John Clarence Webster Canadiana Collection of the New Brunswick Museum. (W1294) (New Brunswick Museum / Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick (W1294) )

When Clement Clarke Moore grew up, he became a professor of Middle East and Greek literature and theology and wrote the two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.

Poetry and language were interests he shared with his godfather, Jonathan.

The two kept up a regular correspondence on the subject of poetry and the study of languages. Although Jonathan died in 1818, Moore stayed in touch with the Odell family.

'Donder and Blixem'

The handwritten version of the poem in the Odell papers contains a few differences from modern renditions of the poem.

"One of the things that really stands out is the names of the reindeer," said Leah Grandy, who holds a doctorate in the history of the Atlantic provinces and has written on the manuscript in the Odell papers.

The handwritten copy of A Visit From St. Nicholas was found among the Odell family papers in the collection of the New Brunswick Museum. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In the original version of the poem, two of the reindeer were named "Dunder and Blixem, which is close to the Dutch versions of 'thunder and lightning,'" Grandy said.

The reindeers names have evolved into Donner and Blitzen, "which are closer to the German."

In the Odell version, the reindeer are named "Donder and Blixem."

The names of the reindeer also appear in a different order than in modern versions of the poem.

The Odell version also refers to the reindeers "pawing and prancing" versus "prancing and pawing." St. Nicholas's sack is "slung over his back" versus "flung on his back," and the smoke encircles his head "in a wreath" versus "like a wreath."

While an earlier poem called Old Santeclaus with Much Delight described St. Nicholas with a sleigh and a single reindeer, Moore's poem was the first to name eight reindeer — and make them fly. (pixabay.com)

Copied by hand

Competing theories have been advanced for how the handwritten poem made its way into the Odell papers.

While the copy of the poem is unsigned, the handwriting matches that of Odell's daughter, Mary.

Mary may have "heard it from [Moore]," said Christine Little, an archival assistant at the New Brunswick Museum. "Maybe he recited it. He could have come to New Brunswick — there is no proof.

A letter addressed to the Hon. Jonathan Odell of Fredericton from Clement Moore, who is widely considered to be the author of Twas the Night Before Christmas. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Maybe it came through in letters, or someone passed it along and she chose to write it out herself."

In the early 19th century, before printing technology was widespread in the colonies, it was common for avid readers to "copy literature like this and circulate it, and keep journals of literature." Grandy said.

Authorship controversy

That the poem was published anonymously — and that Moore long refused to confirm or deny writing it — has led some to dispute his authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas. 

The family of Henry Livingston Jr., a poet and farmer from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has asserted since the 19th century Livingstone is the true author and claims that Moore fraudulently took credit for the famous work.

The Odell manuscript indicates that as early as 1824, friends of Moore were aware of the poem and believed that he was the author.

But Mary's source for her copy remains a mystery.

"There is that family connection, so we're quite certain that she must have written it down," Little said. "It was kept in the collection, so obviously it was valued."

''Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,' an original illustration by Thomas Nast (1876). (AP/ Courtesy Brandywine Museum)

Whatever the source, the manuscript is a memento of one of St. Nick's first visits to New Brunswick. 

"When you think about it, it's pretty astounding that it was the source of all the traditions we see when we look around us today," Little said.

"People think that early 19th-century New Brunswick was this isolated area," Grandy said.

But the manuscript "shows all the connections New Brunswick had with famous literature, people, and events from all around the world."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a lifelong Saint Johner and the host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.