A Guideposts staffer who doubles as a tour guide explains that many Yuletide traditions were born in the Big Apple.
Like many New Yorkers, I wasn’t born here. I’m a transplant from Oklahoma City. Almost immediately, I was captivated by the layers of history to be found on almost any block. And who knew this was Christmas Town?
Take the neighborhood where I live, Chelsea, in the west 20s of Manhattan. Why is it called that? Turns out the area was developed in the early nineteenth century by Clement Clarke Moore, whose family home, named Chelsea, was located here. And if Moore’s name sounds familiar that’s because he wrote the poem that begins, “Twas the night before Christmas…”
The widespread popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—the poem’s official title—is credited with establishing the custom of Santa Claus arriving by sleigh with eight reindeer, bringing toys to boys and girls before ascending back up the chimney, his finger to his nose.
Moore was a professor of languages at General Theological Seminary and donated the land, a former apple orchard, on which the seminary still stands. I can show you the spot, a couple blocks from my apartment. While we’re at it, I might mention one of General’s graduates, John Henry Hopkins, who in 1857 wrote the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
See what I mean about New York being full of Christmas landmarks?
Just to continue with Santa Claus, how do you suppose it was determined what he looked like? How did he morph from Moore’s “right jolly old elf” to the rotund, bearded gift-bearer we know and love today? Much credit goes to New York cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew the iconic Santa in a red coat with white trim in 1862 for Harper’s Weekly, based in New York.
That same Civil War-torn year, Macy’s flagship department store began the tradition, now observed in shopping malls everywhere, of Santa appearing in person. His presence was meant to draw in customers, as indeed it did, encouraging the idea of gift giving at Christmas.
Another Macy’s innovation: the first holiday windows in 1874, showing a display of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Back then Macy’s was on Sixth Avenue between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets. It moved 20 blocks uptown in the early twentieth century to its current location, eventually taking over an entire city block, and serving as the site and subject of one of America’s best-loved holiday films, Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 original and the 1994 remake).
New York City has served as the setting for countless Christmas stories, partly because the authors happened to live here. I like to drop into Pete’s Tavern on Eighteenth Street. It was here that O. Henry is supposed to have written “The Gift of the Magi,” that tale of a young and penniless married couple who rise to the occasion of gift giving by buying things that turn out to be useless to each other: expensive hair combs for the woman who has sold her hair to buy her husband a gold chain for his watch—which he sold to buy the combs.
The title of the story is, of course, a reference to the Wise Men of the Bible, who, as O. Henry wrote, “invented the art of giving Christmas presents.”
Let me make one last stop on this virtual tour of New York’s Christmas landmarks: Madison Square Park, six acres of greenery at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. It was here that the first community Christmas tree was lit back in 1912. Even if you’re visiting off-season, the tree is commemorated with a brightly lit Star of Hope, which stands on a tall pole on the edge of the park.
There are more famous trees in New York, like the one at Rockefeller Center, but I like this year-round reminder that hope doesn’t have to wait for a season. Nor does it have to keep count of the shopping days till Christmas. Hope always shines.
I do go back to Oklahoma City at Christmastime to be with my family. I enjoy seeing my hometown celebrate: the festive windows, Santa Claus in every store, elaborate community trees, carols like “We Three Kings” blazoned from loudspeakers on the street.
I don’t dare tell my loved ones, “You know, a lot of this came from my adopted home.” But when they visit me, like the millions of tourists who come to New York every year, I take them on a grand tour.
“Christmas got its start in Bethlehem,” I say, “but let me show you just how it spread from there. For instance, there was this language professor who taught at a seminary not far from my apartment and he wrote this poem...” It’s nice to spread the word.
For more information about Brett Leveridge's Christmas in New York walking tours, visit AvenuesandAlleys.com!