Santa Claus, a real New Yawker, who woulda thunk it! New York City Christmas!
I’d never given much thought to Santa Claus until I started to lead New York City Christmas tours.
Having spent many a New York City Christmas I assumed Santa was a legendary figure from European folk lore that had been around forever, I was wrong, Jolly Olde St Nick was basically a creation of three men, most prominently Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and one John Pintard. Santa was born in NYC. What would New York City be at Christmas be without “Sancte Claus, goed heylig man!”
In the early 1800’s New Years Day was a big day of celebration for the wealthy merchant class. The working class went wild on New Years Eve, so what’s new? The tradition was to call on friends, sit in the parlor, have a sip or two of brandy, chit chat amiably, and exchange small presents. But by the 1820’s the city had was grown so large that this was becoming impractical.
John Pintard, as president of the New York Historical Society proposed that a new day be observed. His friend Washington Irving, the creator of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane informed him that the Dutch observed a holiday on December 6th known as Saint Nicholas Day, supposedly St Nick was the patron saint of New Amsterdam. Pintard was so head over heels about the 6th that he staged a huge banquet at City Hall to hype the holiday, there was food and wine, members of the New York Historical Society were invited to attend, but with all his efforts the holiday never took off, however Santa Claus was a big hit.
Meanwhile, the rich were trawling for another day to celebrate. Now the church gets involved, because they were looking to offset the craziness that had taken root amongst the working class, who were celebrating a pagan holiday that occurred around the winter solstice. It was a day for carousing, window breaking and general lawlessness. Not exactly exemplary Christian behavior.
In 1819 Washington Irving published a collection of short stories know as the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, in it were the first appearances of Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle and the Christmas Holiday. Santa was an afterthought, but then another one of Pintard’s friends, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a quick poem for his children, called “A Visit from St Nicholas.” better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It became one of the best know poems ever written by an American. Moore owned an estate called Chelsea on 9th Avenue that stretched from 23 Street to 28th Street. On our Christmas tour we’ll pass that area. Alas, the manse is long gone, but I’ll point out the spot where it stood, as we imagine a New York of long ago.
Moore was a scholar of renown, he was American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He was also a noted Hebrew scholar. A real mouthful, no lightweight, and he wasn’t thrilled about writing these verses for his kids because he somehow sensed that he would be remembered for them and nothing else. And that’s what happened. The poem may never have passed out of his house, except for a friend who sent the verses to the Sentinel, a newspaper in Troy, New York in December of 1823. Within a few years it was known throughout the country and the entire Christmas line-up was cemented into peoples minds. The poem nailed Santa’s look, the night of the visit, the sled, the name of every damn reindeer, and the bringing toys to children madness. The vision of this jolly elf caught on big time and Pintard quickly proclaimed that the new rituals of Christmas were of “ancient usage” and that Santa was so rooted in the city’s history that he could never be forgotten.
In the 1830’s Catharine Sedgwick, a novelist wrote the first story that included a Christmas Tree, German immigrants living in Brooklyn adopted the tree as a symbol and that was that, well, Christmas was ready for it’s big New York City close-up.
The link below will take you to a story about a guy who makes his living as Santa all year round, he’s a celeb in Japan, knockin’ em dead all year long. The big guys’ still got traction.
I want to acknowledge that much of the information that I gleaned about Santa Claus came from the the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Gotham” written by Burrows & Wallace. Thank you, and I look forward to the second volume of your great work.
I also used some wikipedia and other sources.