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Did you know that “The Night Before Christmas” was written in Chelsea?

By
Howard Halle
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Yes, it was.

Centuries before The High Line, starchitect-designed condos and mega-galleries the size of basketball courts, the area we call Chelsea was an estate owned by a retired British army officer, Captain Thomas Clarke, who bought the land in 1750 and named it after the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London. The main house was located where the corner of 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue is today, and it was there, in 1822, that the officer’s grandson, a prominent Protestant theologian and scholar named Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) penned “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—aka, “The Night Before Christmas.”

According to legend, Moore wrote his classic poem about jolly old St. Nick as a Christmas present for his six young children. But it’s inspiration came from a sleigh ride through what was then snowy countryside: Supposedly, the sound of the sleigh bells made gave him the idea. Some historians speculate that Moore may have been returning from a trip to market, and that furthermore, his driver was actually his slave. (According to documents at the New York Historical Society, Moore was indeed a slaveholder, which is plausible since an 1817 state law freeing all slaves born in New York before 1799 didn’t go into full effect until 1827.)

Moore popularized Santa Claus as we know him today: The portly fellow with red cheeks who delivered presents via a flying sled he’d park on the rooftop before shimmying down the chimney with the his bag of goodies. During the 1870s, cartoonish and Tammany Hall muckraker Thomas Nast gave Santa the visual image we have of him today, but the legend of Santa Claus goes all the way back to when the Dutch settling New Amsterdam brought the folklore figure of Sinterklaas with them. Sinterklaas was based on a real historical personage: Nikolaos of Myra, a Fourth Century Greek Bishop and miracle worker who became beatified by the Church as Saint Nicholas, patron and protector of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers and pawnbrokers. And oh yes, children, which explains the whole Christmas thing. In Holland, Sinterklaas is celebrated with gift-giving on December 5, the evening of Saint Nicholas Day; Moore moved Santa’s delivery date to the night of December 24th, when children are all supposed to be all nestled, snug in their beds.

The story of Sinterklaas, however, had been transmitted to Moore through a much more contemporary source: Washington Irving’s 1809 satire, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which he describes an impish, pipe-smoking Saint Nicholas who “came riding over the tops of the trees in [a] wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” Moore changed the wagon to a reindeer-propelled sleigh, added Santa’s dramatic entrance and exit via chimney, and the rest is history.

A friend of Moore’s originally had the poem published anonymously in an upstate newspaper; Moore himself didn’t reveal his identity as the author until two decades later. By then, he’d sold the property he’d inherited to one Don Alonzo Cushman, Chelsea’s first developer, whose fine Italianate townhouses still line the block of West 20th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. As for Moore, he’s buried in Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, though a park and playground bearing his name stands on the corner of West 22nd and Tenth Avenue, while a bronze plaque at 426 West 23rd Street marks the spot where Santa Claus first came to town.

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