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Fort Lee’s Christmas Carol

A Visit from St. Nicholas Courtesy of Fort Lee's Church of the Good Shepherd circa 1859.

'Tis the season for many holiday remembrances, and here in our little perch atop the Palisades in Fort Lee, one rarely heard tale comes to mind.

As you go about your holiday shopping these last few days before Christmas, I hope you can take the time to relax for a moment or two in front of your fireplace if you have one, and if not, then position yourself near your TV as WPIX brings back its yearly ratings hit, “The Yule Log.” 

As you relax in this cozy atmosphere, you might be compelled to think of the holiday classic A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’ acclaimed novella was first published in December of 1843.

Why mention this in an archives piece about Fort Lee? Well, in 1859, Reverend Ralph Hoyt authored Echoes of Memory and Emotion. This past month, Fort Lee Historical Society Vice President Lou Azzollini purchased an original copy of this very book off Ebay for the Fort Lee Museum - said museum being adjacent to the Church of the Good Shepherd.  

Reverend Hoyt kept a house in Fort Lee for years in the mid 19th century. The good Reverend was quite a wordsmith, and he penned a previous book titled Life and Landscape in the 1850s prior to Echoes of Memory and Emotion.

Reverend Hoyt was born in New York City and was educated at the common schools, according to his obituary, which appeared in the New York Times on October 12, 1878, and of which I freely quote from in these sentences. 

The Reverend was 70 at the time of his death. At an early age, he studied theology and was ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1840 by Bishop Benjamin T. Onderdonk in St. Mark’s Church, Williamsburg. Reverend Hoyt established a mission soon after at Market and Monroe streets, where he rented a furnished room over a liquor store as a place of public worship. It was at this very spot where he organized the congregation that was afterward known as the Church of the Good Shepherd. 

In 1854, he raised sufficient funds to enable him to purchase some lots of ground in Fifty-Fourth Street, between Second and Third Avenues, upon which he immediately began the erection of a church building. Shortly before its completion, the edifice was blown down during a tornado.

With the view of contributing toward the expense of its reconstruction, Reverend Hoyt published a collection of poems, which he had written and gave the volume the title, Life and Landscape. The book was met with great success and the Church of the Good Shepherd was built with the proceeds. 

After his resignation as Rector of the church, Reverend Hoyt opened a mission church in Fort Lee, where he had kept a house for years previously. He called his new church the Church of the Good Shepherd. Reverend Hoyt retired as Rector of Fort Lee’s Church of the Good Shepherd in 1878 for health reasons and died three months later.

The church we know as the Church of the Good Shepherd on Palisade Avenue here in Fort Lee actually was erected as the Stone Church on Parker Place in 1867 by General Edward Jardine, John G. Cunningham and others at a cost of $8,000.  The church passed through many hands, owned at one time by J.R. Hoadley of New York, who let it out to all denominations for religious purposes, and it was so used from 1880 to 1889. 

In February 1894 it was purchased by the “Good Shepherd Mission” of the Episcopal Church and is still owned and occupied by the Episcopal Church today where our dear friend, Reverend Allison Moore serves as Rector.

As additional background, Reverend B.C.C. Parker came to Fort Lee in 1851, and built a home on what was known as Parker Place. This is a side note but an interesting one as both the name Parker and Hoyt went on to become names used for streets in Fort Lee (Hoyt Avenue and Parker Avenue).

Well, as they say, all roads lead to Rome, but in this case I will say Hoyt Avenue and Parker Avenue lead to a Christmas tale of 1859 by Reverend Hoyt titled, Santa Claus A Christmas Carol – here are some excerpts of this wonderful winter’s tale:

Santa Claus

Beyond the ocean many a mile, 

And many a year ago,

There lived a wonderful queer old man

In a wonderful house of snow;

And every little boy and girl,

 As Christmas times arrive,

No doubt will be very glad to hear,

The old man is still alive.

December’s four and twentieth day

Through its course was almost run,

St. Nicholas stood at his castle door

Awaiting the setting sun.

His goods were packed in a great balloon,

Near by were his horse and sleigh;

He had his skates upon his feet

And a ship getting under way.

For he was to travel by sea and land,

And sometimes through the air,

And then to skim on the rivers smooth,

When the ice his weight would bear.

The wind blew keen, and the snow fell fast,

But not a whit cared he;

For he knew a myriad little hearts,

Were longing that night to see.

The wonderful poem goes on to describes Santa’s trips to all corners of the world to bring joy children everywhere. Santa’s last stop is New York, and Reverend Hoyt details St. Nick’s travels to the houses of all the Knickerbocker children:

Up, up my gallant sailors all,

Swiftly your anchor weigh,

The wind is fair, and we must sail

For far America.

By wind and steam for New Amsterdam,

Three thousand miles an hour,

Onward he drove his elfin ship,

With a thousand-fairy power.

Down at the Battery he moored,

And gave a grand salute,

With cannon charged with sugar-plums,

And powder made to suit.

The he hoisted out a score of bales,

Of his cakes,  and nuts, and wares;

You would have been amazed to see

The heaps on the ferry stairs.

All’s well, all’s well!  Loud voices cried;

St. Nicholas is here!

How charming many a stocking full

In the morning will appear.

Now all good little boys and girls

Shall have a noble treat,

Delightful presents that will make

The holidays complete.

But long before all was said,

The stockings were all filled,

And Santa Claus was skating home,

With his nose a little chilled.

He whistled as he skimmed along,

Till the day began to dawn,

Then giving a twirl in the frosty air

St. Nicholas was gone!

This strange yet wonderful poem originally appeared in Harpers’ Magazine. I for one am amazed at Reverend Hoyt’s ability to give Santa new means of transportation like a balloon and skates. 

Truly the jolly old elf met a pen dipped in the weirdness and wonderfulness of Old New Jersey via this tale by Reverend Hoyt. So may all of you have a very merry holiday season and be on the lookout for Santa Claus in a balloon or on skates somewhere in the vicinity of the Church of the Good Shepherd this Christmas Eve!

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