New Amsterdam’s Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is Dec 6th. Saint Nicholas is said to be the patron saint of New York, and his veneration held influence over Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants who settled in New York, Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region. Clogs and shoes might be filled with goodies such as oranges and nuts, if one was truly faithful. The Protestant Reformation had a chilling effect on saint veneration, and this tradition largely went underground in Europe. America proved a friendly environment for a more secularized Christmas tradition to flourish.
Legend has it that the first ship that docked in New York was the Goede Vrowe, which according to Washington Irving’s 1809 satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, had as its prow carving “a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low brimmed hat, huge pair of Flemish hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit." This image was more working-class Dutch than the proud image of the revered Bishop of history. This Saint Nick appealed to the common man, and after the patriotic fervor of the Revolution, inspired people to return to their ancestral roots.
|The Children's Friend|
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
This Saint Nick came down the chimney and filled stockings for good girls and boys. For it wasn’t until the 1840’s after Prince Albert presented Queen Victoria with decorated trees at her palaces that the Christmas tree came into vogue in the United States.
Both Irving and Moore use a curious phrase in describing Saint Nick’s mannerisms—"laying a finger aside of his nose.” It is the equivalent of our modern-day wink and nod, assuring us that this is real, and not just the stuff of childhood fantasy. Ask Virginia, she knows there really is a Santa Claus.