Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Walking Tours in NYC - Learning from the Ground Level

'Victorian Christmas: Origins of Christmas Traditions -- A look at the literary roots of the holiday with stops at sites associated with O. Henry ("The Gift of the Magi"), Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit From St. Nicholas") and Washington Irving's character of St. Nicholas in his "Knickerbocker's History of New York."  At 2 p.m. Sunday, led by NYC Discovery Walking Tours.'

The Weekend section of the "New York Times" was full of goings-on in the city, from Christmas tree lightings to storefront extravaganzas; but for a writer, what could be more appealing than following in the footsteps (literally) of other authors?  What could I learn by walking in their neighborhoods over a hundred years later?  I was intrigued.  With directions in hand to the corner of 21st and Lexington (across from Gramercy Park), I set off to meet the guide, in a part of NYC I had yet to discover.

Brownstones surrounding the park date to Victorian years (1837-1901), and with twinkling lights peeking through windows, I imagined picture-perfect holiday scenes immortalized on the covers of Christmas cards.

Norman Rockwell, "Santa at His Desk"
Saturday Evening Post
Of course, as with any imagined scene, all was not coziness and hot chocolate. Christmas traditions evolved in the United States, our guide explained, as immigrant cultures converged (often clashed) and sorted out customs -- keeping some, discarding others and "melting" many into what today is often referred to as "American Christmas."

Two of the authors highlighted on our tour contributed to the evolution of the dimpled-cheek, pipe-smoking, overworked - but ever-jolly - St. Nicholas.

Using the pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving penned his first book, a satire, in 1809 about the Dutch founding of NYC, with an appropriate tongue-in-cheek title -- A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.  He included a description of the Dutch St. Nicholas.  Sound familiar?

"And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream,–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to the children. . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared." (Irving, Washington.Knickerbocker’s History of New York, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928, p. 50)

Irving's youthful face faces the street named in his honor at 47 Irving Place (or 122 E. 17th), although myth is stronger than fact that he ever actually lived here.

Clement Clarke Moore, living a few blocks away in Chelsea, was clearly influenced by Irving's words (almost exact words - "laying his finger beside his nose") when he wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas," in 1823, later re-named "Twas the Night Before Christmas."  His poem adds to and solidifies the character we know as Santa Claus, his eight reindeer, pack of toys and curious top-down manner of entering houses.
A sketch by Moore's daughter, Mary C. Ogden, in 1855, depicts the Moore's mansion on their Chelsea estate, now occupied by townhouses at 8th Ave. and 23rd.  Notice the numerous chimneys.  How ever did Santa choose?
The final author on the tour had nothing to do with Santa Claus and the evolution of Christmas into a commercialized frenzy.  Just the opposite.

Similar to today's writers setting up shop in a Starbucks,   
O. Henry ("according to local legend") occupied a booth in Pete's Tavern*, and wrote "The Gift of the Magi" in 1906.

*(at 129 E. 18th - between 3rd Ave. and Irving Place)


"The more expensive, the better, was the message of Christmas-giving during the Industrial Revolution," said our guide.  O. Henry's story of a young couple who sell their prized possessions to buy each other beyond-their-means gifts, not only twists the ending, but tests the conventional thinking of the day.

One of my favorite stories, it's worthy of yearly reflection, perhaps this year in O. Henry's booth, before penning my letter to that "right jolly old elf." (Moore)
Now, where did that tradition get started? Sounds like a writer's idea to me.



  1. What a great reflection of the tour! I think the taverns walk is definitely one to take on next, especially for the holidays. Thanks for the recommendation, it was fun!!!

  2. Yes, the tavern walk should definitely be high on our ever-growing list of "Things To Do in NYC!" It's such fun to do them together.

  3. That sounds like my kind of walk. What fun to see where so many of our traditions started. And how inspiring to know that they came from WORDS.

  4. It was such an interesting tour; I highly recommend it!


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