Posted by: jevcat | December 20, 2010

St. Nicholas as Ghost of Christmas Past

I stepped back in time this afternoon, as I do every Fourth Sunday in Advent, at the Church of the Intercession, on the border between Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan.

Church of the Intercession

We have become such a mobile society, especially in urban areas such as New York, I think it’s rare for anyone to have a family church anymore, especially the way my brother and I do.  Our father was baptized at Intercession, the Episcopal Church being deemed acceptable middle ground between Grandma’s Baptist faith and Grandpa’s Roman Catholicism.  (I suspect Grandma was never entirely happy with the choice, because I suspect Grandma was rarely entirely happy with anything.)  Our mother started at Intercession when she was five, living in the neighborhood, and first attended at the very service my brother and I went to today.  Our parents met there, married there, my brother and I were baptized and confirmed there, and Mom and Dad were buried from there, in Trinity’s north cemetery, which surrounds the church (for most of the Twentieth Century, Intercession was a chapel of Trinity Wall Street).  If you trip coming out of the crypt chapel and stumble a few yards, you might land on their graves.

Intercession is a landmark, on the National Register of Historic Places, an architectural treasure designed by Bertram Goodhue.  It has marvelous iconography, a unique high altar of Connemara marble set with a brass vine that curls around stones collected from Christian holy places by the first vicar.  And for us it is home, it is ours, and, in a sense, it always will be, wherever we are.

Vine Stem Detail on Intercession's High Altar

So every year, the afternoon of Advent IV finds us joyfully greeting now-elderly ladies (most of them West Indian) who have known us all our lives, and who have been keeping the church running probably since before we were born.  The service, at 4:00 in the afternoon, is a child-centered carol service that draws people from all over the city to honor Christmas, the child in all of us, and the man who put children at the heart of Christmas:  Clement Clarke Moore, Episcopal clergyman and author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas … ”).  It ends with a reading of the poem (usually by a celebrity, although one year the reader had a family emergency and our mother was asked to step in, and did so proudly and beautifully) with children invited up to surround the reader’s chair, followed by a procession, led by a congregation member in an antique St. Nicholas outfit (complete with carved and painted wooden crozier with a Christmas tree in its curl).  Across Broadway we go and down to a portion of the cemetery near the Hudson River, where Moore is buried.  A wreath is laid, prayers are said, Silent Night is sung, and then everyone sensibly retreats indoors for hot chocolate (wine for the adults) and cookies.

Church of the Intercession Interior, Christmas c.1980

My brother and I have been going to this service all our lives and anticipate continuing to do so as long as we continue to live.  We are old enough to still call it “The Lantern Service” because participants used to make the procession carrying kerosene lanterns.  It was a childhood rite of passage to be considered old enough to carry one, but nowadays all but a handful have broken – or been appropriated as souvenirs – so only the altar party get them and the rest of us make do with glow sticks that are handed out.  These have the advantage of not needing to be returned or cared for (not to mention not being flammable) but a tad of the romance has been lost (and if I ever hit the lottery, the lanterns will return).

Intercession's Ethiopian-style Icon Processional Cross by Victor Challenor

The neighborhood has been one of immigrants and low income for years, the congregation struggles, and the buildings badly need repair, but this was the service’s 100th celebration, and, for us, attending this service is like stepping through a time warp:  Mom and Dad are right around the corner – literally, albeit only their earthly remains – and we are children again – almost literally:  A number of years ago, when I was in my forties and my brother his late thirties or early forties, an elderly gentleman we knew was chosen to be St. Nicholas.  We no longer get there often outside of this service and made a point of greeting him afterward, and it was with a mixture of delight, astonishment, and amusement that we heard him exclaim excitedly to his adult daughter, “Look:  it’s the Vetter children!”  No one had called us “children” in decades and, yes, we did manage not to laugh (at least until later).

Wishing you comforting memories, too, and (a few days early):  “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

[A video piece on the service can be found on Trinity’s Website.  For more information about the Church of the Intercession, see their Website or Facebook page.]


  1. This brought back all of the good memories I have of attending the service with you more than 30 years ago. This was the Sunday my mother would make wffle cookies, because I wasn’t around to get burned by the fat! I remember being cold but wanted to go in any event. I remember the traffic being stopped on Broadway so that we could cross. (that was an event!) I remember years it was slippery getting down to the grave. And I miss the ability to be able to get there each year!

  2. Oh and if I win the lottery….the lanterns will be back also!

  3. I’m really glad you “Vetter children” were able to go together again this year. What a blessing to have tradition and memories of that sort.

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