The neighborhood, Chelsea, on Manhattan's West Side, is named after the mansion owned by the Clarke Moore family. Chelsea, the house, was named after the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. Founded in 1682 by Charles 11 for veterans, it continues as a retreat today, and visitors to London note the 'Chelsea Pensioners' strolling the streets in their bright red tunics.
The Clarke Moore house was located (amidst rolling countryside and orchards) at what is today the intersection of 8th Avenue and 24th Street. Clement Clarke Moore was born there in 1779. He published many highbrow papers and books including a dictionary of 'the Hebrew language.' For years he was happy to remain anonymous as the author of the poem for which he was to be remembered. Perhaps he thought such a romantic trifle would mar his reputation for erudition. He donated land for the construction of The General Theological Seminary (begun in 1827). It's still there between 20th and 21st streets and 9th and 10th avenues. Clarke Moore was its first professor of oriental languages.
The poem is properly entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas, and was written (so the story goes) for his daughters on a Christmas trip to relatives in December 1882. There has been some argument about its authorship but it seems pretty clear Clarke Moore penned it. The publisher and various others who should have known said it was his, and he included it in a compendium (at his daughters' urging) of his poems in 1844.
New York's protestant elite saw the increasing popularity of Christmas Day as the season's big holiday (moving away from New Year's Day) as Catholic skullduggery. By picturing St. Nick as 'a jolly old elf,' bestowing gifts on Christmas Eve, not the more religious Christmas Day, and by centering it on children, Clarke Moore neatly moved the holiday out of the line of religious fire.
Spot the little park and playground named after Moore on the S.E. corner of 10th Avenue and 22nd Street.
As the 1811 grid plan cut through the country estate, 'Chelsea' was slowly developed: note the 1840s red brick row houses (low stoops and pilasters); the 1850s brownstones (high stoops and elaborate door and window surrounds). For a while Chelsea was the place to be with the Grand Opera House on 23rd Street near 8th Avenue, and Madison Square Garden actually in Madison Square Garden. The City's inexorable march north soon left it to become the quiet residential neighborhood that in many ways it remains today.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And Mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap;
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name;
"Now Dasher! now Dancer now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the great hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof -
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed, when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying a finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
Clement Clarke Moore
We get many of our modern notions of Father Christmas from this poem, but not all. Many know it was Coca Cola that "dressed" him in red and white. Before that he was often depicted in forest green. Here he's in fur from head to toe, besmirched in soot and ashes. Read carefully and you'll be able to answer children who wonder at his ability to get down a chimney: He's an "elf." He, the "little old driver" rides a "miniature sleigh'" drawn by "eight tiny reindeer."
Merry imaginings! Find Chelsea, the General Theological Seminary and more, on our concierge maps of Manhattan (F2 on the Midtown Edition). Clive Burrow