Christmas morning 1911, one hundred Sunday school children marched out of the Gothic church at the corner of Broadway and 158th Street. Singing Christmas carols and bearing a large holly wreath, they processed along Broadway to 155th Street, then down the steep hill towards the river and through the gates into Trinity Cemetery. Their destination was a simple gravestone a few yards from the towering wall at the cemetery’s western border, a gravestone marking the burial place of Clement Clarke Moore, Biblical scholar, Professor of Classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City (which he founded), author of a Hebrew Lexicon, and most remembered for composing the perennial Christmas favorite, A Visit from St. Nicholas (better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas).
One hundred and one years later, despite decades of change at the church and in the community surrounding it (and despite compelling evidence that Moore didn’t actually write the poem) the tradition the Sunday school children inaugurated that Christmas morning continues.
The Clement Clarke Moore Ceremony in 2011
At 4:00 p.m. on December 18th, jazz musician Ron Carter will read the cherished Christmas poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in the Church of the Intercession at Broadway and 155th Street during the one hundred and first “Clement Moore” ceremony. Afterward a candlelight procession will proceed to Moore’s grave site for a wreath laying, carol sing, and reception. Intercession’s celebration also includes a slide show presentation at 3.00 p.m. and a musical prelude at 3.30 p.m. The event is open to the public, free of charge.
Earlier in the afternoon (at 1.30 p.m.), historian, author, and tour guide Eric K. Washington will lead a Christmas walking tour of Trinity Cemetery, ending at the church in time for the celebration. The walking tour begins at the northwest corner of Broadway and 155th Street in front of the gate to Audubon Terrace and costs $15 per person.
Milo Gates and His Christmas Festival: Sentimentality with a Strong Dose of Practicality
Interviewed for an article that appeared in the Washington Herald on December 14, 1913, the Rev. Milo H. Gates recalled his inspiration for the Christmas ceremony. As a boy, he had recited “The Night Before Christmas” and “always wondered about the man who wrote it,” so when he discovered Moore’s grave in Trinity Cemetery, near the Church of the Intercession where he was serving as rector, he “wanted some of the children of the city to see it and to do honor to it in their own way.”
Sentimentality about a Christmas poem may have inspired Gates, but so did practicality. 1911 was no ordinary year for the Church of the Intercession.
A New Church…
The Intercession congregation had suffered financial problems ever since it had moved into its church building on Broadway in 1873 – the same week the Panic of 1873 bankrupted several of its major contributors and stymied population growth on the heights, the anticipated growth that had prompted the congregation to build a new, larger church. Successive rectors had rebuilt the congregation, but at the turn of the century, when Gates arrived, the church was still in debt, so he negotiated a deal with the Trinity Corporation. The independent “Church” of the Intercession would become the “Chapel” of the Intercession, a satellite congregation bound to and dependent upon Trinity Church. In return, Trinity Corporation would help Intercession build a new church – a much larger and grander one – inside the grounds of Trinity Cemetery just three blocks south of its 1873 building (and in sight of its original location on Amsterdam Avenue at 154th Street). As rector, Gates bore responsibility for filling the new church and demonstrating that he led a viable congregation, both in numbers and in financial stability.
…and a Congregation to Fill It
At the same time, population in the blocks adjacent to the church had exploded with potential parishioners. A decade after the subway had lured a new wave of New Yorkers to Washington Heights, apartment buildings had sprung up along Broadway and its side streets, beginning with the Lafayette facing 158th Street and its twin the Fort Washington facing Fort Washington Avenue, both in the shadow of Intercession’s western wall. Although bucolic Audubon Park had survived the first decade of “the subway building boom” without change, in the two years between 1909 and 1911, it had suddenly disappeared beneath a series of apartment buildings and the Audubon Terrace museum complex. During the summer of 1911, both The Riviera and The Grinnell had opened, bringing scores of additional families to lower Washington Heights, many of them in search of a church home.
The Episcopalians and the Presbyterians
Since the 1840s, the Church of the Intercession (Episcopal) and Washington Heights Presbyterian had dominated the religious life of lower Washington Heights, the two denominations being the preferences for upper and upper middle class New Yorker Protestants in the 19th Century. While the smaller Methodist and Baptist churches on Amsterdam drew members mainly from the working class in Carmansville, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians competed for members among the upper class families in and around Audubon Park and residing in the villas and mansions further north. In 1903 Washington Heights Presbyterian merged with North Presbyterian and began constructing a new church on 155th Street facing Trinity Cemetery, an impressive church building ready for the increased population the subway was bringing to Washington Heights. The new church the Episcopalians were planning in Trinity Cemetery (directly across the street from North Presbyterian) would put them on equal footing with the Presbyterians, but in 1911, they hadn’t even broken ground yet, so in the meantime, Gates used the resources at his disposal: a prime location on Broadway, a large group of Sunday school children, and a strong tradition of religious ceremony.
Since the 16th century when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans (Episcopalians are the primary American branch of the global Anglican Communion) have enjoyed a formal religious liturgy enhanced by ritual, the poetic language of the Book of Common Prayer, and music. Virtually every service includes a procession, from the weekly procession of choir, clergy, acolytes, and crucifer into the church before service and from the church afterward, to lengthened and enlarged processions in and around the church on special holy days. What better, more appropriate way to draw attention to the Church of the Intercession and its traditions than sending the Sunday school children forth on a Christmas morning procession through the streets? Even those who remained indoors would hear the children’s voices caroling through a neighborhood made quiet by Christmas morning.
The plan worked. News reports from that first year mentioned that “many passersby joined in the ceremony.” The next year “over 300 children and many others…went to the grave. It was a snowy Christmas morning – a typical Christmas – and it was a pretty sight.” By 1913, the Christmas morning procession included banners and trumpeters and in 1914, (as Gates told the Lowell Sun) a large crowd of spectators had gathered on Riverside Drive overlooking the cemetery to watch the festivities.
In 1919, the New York Tribune reported that the procession – now shifted to Christmas Eve – would include a visit to the grave site of Alfred Tennyson Dickens, whose father Charles Dickens helped invent the modern celebration of Christmas with A Christmas Carol. (The younger Dickens had died in New York in 1912 while on a world tour giving lectures and readings commemorating the centennial of his father’s birth. His family accepted the Trinity Corporation’s offer of a lot in the cemetery.)
On Christmas Eve at the Chapel of the Intercession, at the corner of 155th and Broadway, the Feast of Lights is celebrated at 4 o’clock. In the chancel is a pyramid of light. The great candle in the center, Christ, the light of the world, is lighted first. From it the encircling twelve Apostles receive their flame and from them the second circle, the Christian nations.
Immediately the children receive each one a lantern, and as the dusk begins to fall, and the world seems momentarily hushed, they form into procession, and led by trumpeters, sing the “Adeste Fideles,” then visit the grave of the children’s poet, where they lay a wreath and sing carols, and pass on to the grave of Alfred Tennyson Dickens, where they lay another wreath.
(New York Tribune, December 21, 1919)
The Clement Moore Ceremony in the 21st Century
As Gates hoped, the Intercession congregation did grow and remain strong, as did attendance at the Christmas ceremony. Then, reflecting social and economic changes that were affecting all of New York City in the late 1960s, attendance at the church and interest in the ceremony declined – though the tradition continued. In 1976, by mutual agreement, the Chapel of the Intercession ended its agreement with the Trinity Corporation and became once more the independent Church of the Intercession, a multi-ethnic congregation reflecting the population of lower Washington Heights. A renewed interest in the Christmas ceremony Gates created accompanied the congregation’s renewed commitment to the church and the community surrounding it.
In recent years, interest in the ceremony – now occurring on the Sunday before Christmas – has increased, aided by a series of New York celebrities who have taken part by reading Moore’s poem: Joyce (Mrs. David) Dinkins, radio and TV personality G. Keith Alexander, TV star Avery Brooks, actress and producer Tamara Tuni, and actor Malik Yoba.
Challenging Moore’s Authorship
In 2000, just in time for the Christmas season, Vassar professor Don Foster, published Author Unknown in which he argued persuasively that the real author of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas was not Clement C. Moore, but rather Henry Livingston, Jr., a resident of Poughkeepsie. Foster compared the poem’s meter and syntax with both Livingston’s and Moore’s other works, determining that the former was the author. However, as Professor Foster probably knew when he published his book, tradition dies hard and the majority of those who read and enjoy the poem are content to believe Moore composed it, or ignore authorship altogether.
The Christmas ceremony Gates invented a century ago is much more about the spirit of the season than scholarly disputes about authorship, no matter how sound the argument may be. Each year since publication of Author Unknown the authorship debate has resurfaced, and each year, the Clement Moore Ceremony has drawn a large crowd to the Church of the Intercession and Trinity Cemetery on the Sunday before Christmas (with no Henry Livingston, Jr. protesters to date).
For more information about Clement Clarke Moore and Santa Clause, visit the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, It Happened Here: The Invention of Santa Clause, on view from now through January 8, 2012.