leisure 12.6.17

'Twas the Night Before Christmas
Every Person in New York

Possibly apocryphal, but definitely charming, is one version of how Clement Clarke Moore came to write "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

It is December 24th, 1822 and the Moore family needs its Christmas turkey. Mr. Moore leaves his Chelsea home, heads south via sleigh, and pulls up at the Washington Market. En route, he has had the aha moment for the poem and, shopping list completed, starts composing it on the way back.

Later that evening, turkey dispatched and stockings hung, Mr. Moore recites the poem to his six children.

The poem is published, unsigned, the next year in the Troy Sentinel (NY), December 23, 1823, and becomes an immediate hit. It is then widely reprinted but not publicly attributed to, or admitted by Moore, until the publication of The New York Book of Poetry in 1837, a collection of verse by native New Yorkers. In 1848, the poem is published independently, illustrated with woodcuts by local artist Theodore C. Boyd. Some 40 years after he writes the poem, Mr. Moore says his inspiration came during the fabled sleigh ride. Other say the 'inspiration' is actually the creation of Henry Livingston, Jr.

Even so, New York's oldest continuing holiday tradition honors Clement Clarke Moore. That's fitting, since the poem—let us say Mr. Moore's for our purposes today—did much to popularize the more fanciful aspects of Christmas. The tradition came about like this:

Moore was originally buried in the cemetery at St. Luke-in-the-Fields on Hudson St. in 1863. When the land was judged too swampy remain a graveyard, it was sold off, the bodies were moved and the swamp was filled in with buildings. Moore was reinterred in the Trinity Cemetery, 155th St. and Riverside Drive near the Church of the Intercession, 550 W. 155th St. [Broadway]. The church began to honor him and to give its own gift to the children of New York in 1911.

On December 17th, 3pm, there is a musical prelude, slide show and service in the church. All the children attending are invited to come forward and sit in the center of the nave while a New York celebrity—this year, MSNBC's Joy Reid—reads "A Visit from St. Nicholas." St. Nicholas himself appears to lead everyone on a procession to Moore's grave, two blocks away. Candles on the sidewalk light the path and congregants carry kerosene lanterns. St. Nick lays a wreath on Moore's grave and everyone sings Silent Night.

Jason Polan started Every Person in New York in March of 2008. He plans on working on the project until it is finished. Look for more at Jason's site and his book Every Person in New York.


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