What madness! Everyone knows the story of Santa Claus. He’s a “jolly old elf” that lives at the North Pole with his wife, reindeer, and elfin labor force. Or maybe he’s Saint Nikolaos, a Christian saint that lived in Asia around the 4th century. Well, Santa is both of these things, but more than anything else, Santa Claus, the one that we know and love, is a New Yorker.
Yes, a New Yorker, born in the early 1800’s by a group of New Yorkers looking for a non-religious symbol to a holiday slowly gaining popularity: Christmas.
Note: The primary source for this article is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Burrows & Wallace.
New Year’s Domination
For reasons involving our Puritan background, prejudice against Catholics, and the feeling that Christmas was an English custom to be avoided, Christmas was a very minor holiday in the American colonies and later, The United States. It was so minor that George Washington staged his famous night attack at Trenton on Dec 26th, crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night.
Despite New York City’s more cosmopolitan religious makeup and strong ties to England, the favored winter holiday among the middle and upper classes was New Year’s Day rather than Christmas (New Year’s Eve, with its “revelry and mischief,” was more popular among the working class.)
The New Year’s custom was for the wealthy to exchange gifts and to call on their circle of friends, drinking cordials and snacking on sweets (not unlike modern Christmas get-togethers). However, as the city rapidly expanded, it became difficult to continue this tradition. A walk to a friend’s manor was once a few blocks, but now might be miles.
A New York merchant named John Pintard felt that he had a solution: reviving an old winter holiday with a uniquely New York flavor. The holiday was to focus on family-oriented traditions, keeping alive what was dying out in New Year’s. The holiday was December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day.
St. Nicholas Strikes Back
St. Nicholas day seemed like the perfect alternative for New York. It was nearly a month before New Year’s, leaving plenty of room for that holiday. It was also firmly stitched into New York’s Dutch origins, a “simpler time” before the English came and ruined everything. When New York was New Amsterdam, the Dutch colonists celebrated the holiday, including a version of St. Nick known as Sinterklaas. Similar to our Santa, Sinterklaas was a jolly old man in red, with a long, white beard and red mitre.
The author Washington Irving–today best known for his story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow–had already associated Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New Amsterdam. It made sense, he was already the patron of sailors and merchants, the initial colonists of New Amsterdam. He was also the patron saint of children, which made him especially suited for the holiday’s intent. Irving wrote several fanciful stories about St. Nick, reimagining him parking his wagon on rooftops and sliding down chimneys to bring good children gifts.
With Irving’s folksy tales building interest, Pintard held his revival of Saint Nicholas Day in 1810. After an initial surge of support, the campaign lost it’s momentum. Sinterklaas, however, grew in popularity. Now Anglicized to Santa Claus, he found his way into New York culture.
The Return of Christmas
While Pintard struggled with St. Nicholas Day, other wealthy New Yorkers focused on reviving Christmas. This generation’s populace wasn’t as adverse to English traditions as the American Revolution veterans. As Yankees from New England moved to New York, they brought English traditions such as the “Christmas log” and Christmas dinner and prayer. But again, it was Washington Irving that solidified Christmas in New York.
After moving to England for a short time, Irving wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Not only did the book include the short stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it contained many essays that idealized pastoral English life, including their Christmas celebrations.
Christmas overwhelmed Saint Nicholas Day and was gaining fast on New Year’s. There was only one missing piece: Santa Claus. Ironically, it was a close friend of Pintard’s, Clement Clarke Moore, that brought it all together with one iconic poem.
Twas the Night Before Christmas