Many of the ways we think of Christmas, in most of its secular and popular forms - the chubby Santa and his reindeer, the new fallen snow, the warm hearth donned with Christmas stockings, family and friends celebrating in cheer, can trace its roots to the pens of two New York native sons, Washington Irving (1783-1859) and Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). As I wrote in a post from the holiday past, "Irving made Christmas an important holiday in the United States, reworking Dutch folk tales of Saint Nicholas to invent the jolly, though obese, Santa Claus and publishing popular "sketches" of the time he spent Christmas in rural England with an aristocratic family." His contemporary, Clement C. Moore, is credited with writing the poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," known widely as "Twas the Night Before Christmas," a classic that still serves as the template for how young children, especially in the United States, understand what's taking place in the wee hours of December 24.
For a Christmas-themed walk this holiday season, I'm also throwing into the mix another popular storyteller, William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known as O. Henry. Unlike Irving and Moore, gents born to the New York upper class, O. Henry arrived in New York as an ex-con with a drinking problem, eventually dying of liver damage and in debt, but with a world of ideas as to how to twist a story. The author of many Christmas tales, O. Henry wrote his best-known Christmas story, "The Gift of the Magi," from his favorite booth at Pete's Tavern in Irving Place. Though Washington Irving never lived there, a New York developer gave the area its name in the 1830s to honor the New York writer. O. Henry lived in a lodging house in Irving Place from 1903 to 1907.
Exploring Moore's Chelsea and then walking almost directly east on 18th Street to O. Henry's Irving Place invites a myriad of associations about the season, both ecclesiastical and secular.
Image: A plaque with Moore's poem on the fence of Clement Clarke Moore Park (NYC Parks link), W. 22nd St. and 10th Avenue. December 9, 2008 by Walking Off the Big Apple.
See follow-up posts for the walk: