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‘Twas The Night: A New York Christmas tradition in an uptown cemetery

Clement Clarke Moore, the lord of Chelsea (the manor for which the neighborhood is named), lived a long and distinguished life as an educator and land developer, dying in 1863 at his home in Newport, Rhode Island.

He was originally buried in the churchyard of St. Luke-in-the-Field (pictured below) in the area of today’s West Village.

In 1891 the cemetery was redeveloped and the remains were transferred to Trinity Church’s graveyard in Washington Heights.

What does all this have to do with Christmas you ask?

Moore was a revered scholar, former president of Columbia College (later Columbia University) and the developer of the General Theological Seminary on his old Chelsea property.

But most everybody knows him better as the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a verse of holiday anticipation penned for his children.

For well over one hundred years an unusual and special ceremony has taken place at Church of the Intercession, the house of worship which sits upon the grounds of Trinity Church Cemetery.

Church of the Intercession

The tradition was apparently initiated by a vicar at the chapel named Milo Hudson Gates.

First initiated in 1911, Gates, according to a 1933 New York Daily News report, “and his child parishioners trouped across to Trinity Cemetery to pray and sing at the grave where Dr. Moore’s bones have rested since they were removed from the vault in St. Luke’s Church on Hudson Street.”

From the 1914 New York Sun

Hundreds of children, carrying lanterns and torches in the old days, have gathered around Moore’s gravestone and sang Christmas songs over the years.

“Carols were sung and wreaths placed on the grave,” according to a 1919 report. The famous poem by Moore was then recited.

“His name was Clement C. Moore. His body sleeps beneath the Christmas trees that grow in Trinity Cemetery.” [December 23, 1918]

Below: Children surrounding the grave of Moore’s, sometime in the 1920s or 1930s (according the church website).

This tradition has survived into modern day with some interesting variations.

New York Daily News 1944

Frequently a person dressed as Saint Nicholas (the saint, not the Santa) leads the procession. In recent decades, a person of some renown reads the poem such as in 2003 when basketball great Isiah Thomas brought Moore’s words to life.

Below: In 1990, Joyce Dinkins, wife of the mayor David Dinkins, was invited to read the poem.

Courtesy Trinity Church

And the tradition returns this year — but in a whole new way!

From their website: “The 110th reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” at Church of the Intercession in Washington Heights will not be held in person this year, but you can hear the story during a special broadcast scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning on PIX11. 

During the program, the poem will be read by Tony Award-winner James Monroe Iglehart, best known as Genie in Aladdin.

There will be a guest appearance by Young People’s Chorus, The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble, the singing of “Silent Night,” and a visit to Clement Clarke Moore’s grave in Trinity Cemetery.”

December 24, 6pm and 10:30pm 
December 25, 4:30am

PIX11 News, check your local listings. And visit Intercession’s website for more information.

3 replies on “‘Twas The Night: A New York Christmas tradition in an uptown cemetery”

Dear Greg, Tom:

I wanted to thank you for the heads up on the Trinity Church mass and lantern procession to Clement Clarke Moore’s tomb that took place yesterday, as I had not heard of the tradition before your post. As a photojournalist, I was immediately attracted by the photographic possibilities. But it turned out to be more than a mere photo opp for an old shutterbug. What a fantastic observance! It was welcoming and full of splendor, and the participants were all gracious. I had a great time.

Keep up the great work!

Edwin

There’s another church that has an even stronger connection with Moore — St. Peter’s Episcopal in Chelsea. When Moore decided to develop his family land, he donated land on what is now West 20th Street to found St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s Chelsea is an active congregation, but also shares its space with Chelsea Community Church. CCC holds an annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, where a Chelsea neighbor (this has included Rosanne Cash, Ethan Hawke, Blair Brown, and many stage actors) reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas as part of the event.

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