TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Troy, New York is the home of Uncle Sam, an iconic character in American history. The Collar City also helped launch one of the best-known Christmas poems in history, which is celebrating a big birthday this year and next. While the words are well-known, the author is a bit of a mystery.

Hart Cluett Museum decorated for Christmas
The Hart Cluett Museum decorated for Christmas.

With beautiful decorations all throughout the Hart Cluett Museum in Troy, it’s the time of year when Christmas traditions are seen … and heard. The famous first line of the classic Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” has been read countless times. Even at NEWS10 back in 2009!

Author Pamela McColl has spent the last 10 years researching “Twas the Night” history. “It turns 200 this Christmas Eve,” she notes. “It’s been enjoyed by generation after generation.”

Her newly published book shows how the image of Santa we’ve come to know, and love started with this poem, “It’s benevolent, it’s kind, it’s jolly and fun for children and it doesn’t have any threat of punishment, of birch and rod, like some of the poems before did.”

Plaque commemorating "Twas the night before Christmas" poem
This plaque on River Street in Troy commemorates the publishing of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. A plaque on River Street near the now defunct newspaper building noting its place in holiday history. But the writing credit given to Clement C. Moore is not without controversy. While the story goes he wrote the poem as a Christmas gift for his children, reading it to them in 1822 a year before it was published, the family of a Hudson Valley farmer claims it’s the work of Henry Livingston Junior.

Pamela McColl first came to Troy in 2014 to participate in a mock trial of the authorship debate, “We’re always looking for more clues as to who wrote it, we’re all literary sleuths in the museum world trying to find interesting documents.” That trial ended in a hung jury, but McColl gives the verdict to Moore.

Some of the words have changed over the years. “They changed it right off the bat!” she exclaimed. “The Troy Sentinel edition was modified by editors who just decided that they didn’t like the punctuation, or they didn’t like a word. Even Happy Christmas, Merry Christmas in 1828, changes from Happy Christmas to Merry Christmas.”

The artwork has also changed over the years, and Pamela said readers of her book will be surprised by how many illustrators have been inspired to put their spin on Saint Nick. But even as some words changed, a feeling of goodness remains from that right jolly old elf, a connection across generations that’s become a holiday tradition with families reading it out loud together.

“I was at a preschool with two year old’s,” she recalled, “and I wondered if by reading it, it would hold their interest because they’d all just been given a set of jingle bells by the curator which was distracting them. I started reading and I had their attention, so I thought wow, it really does resonate with a 2-year-old still, which is great. I think it’s important to recognize that it is the most famous piece of literature ever written in the English language, it’s the most recited, the most collected, and the most republished. It’s an American poem written in New York.”

While you can argue its place in history as well as who first gave us these oft-repeated words, there is no denying the joy shared over the centuries by children who listen to the poem before nestling all snug in their beds. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? It’s not the presents so quickly unwrapped and later put aside, but the moments of family togetherness that turn into memories of love to be cherished forever.

“But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Twas the Night Before Christmas