Friday, December 8, 2017

New York and Creating Santa Claus

New Amsterdam’s Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is Dec 6thSaint 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.

Saint Nick had planted a foothold in the creative minds of New York writers. Washington Irving in particular is credited with the most imaginative early descriptions of what was to become our modern Santa Claus. He describes Saint Nicholas not only as having a broad hat and long pipe, but of driving a sleigh over the rooftops, filled with presents which he drops down the chimney. At first, it is to all good and unworldly Dutch he comes, on random nights throughout the year, but as tradition and devotion fade, only the children with the purest hearts receive, and only on The Eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

The Children's Friend
In 1821 the first lithographed book in America was published, naturally by a New York publisher, celebrating Sante Claus as “The Children’s Friend.” The images and anonymous poems depict a plump man in red, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer to deliver his gifts for the first time on December 24th.

Two years later, 1823, and another New York writer, Clement C. Moore, took this iconic image of an impish old man and expounded on it to bring us the famous elf of his poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, later better known as T’was the Night Before Christmas.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
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.

Kathleen Maher is a 21st Century girl with an old soul. She has a novella coming out in 2018 with Barbour's collection Victorian Christmas Brides. Her debut novella Bachelor Buttons, released in 2013 through Helping Hands Press, incorporates both her Irish heritage and love of Civil War history. She won the ACFW Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, historical category, in 2012. Kathleen and her husband share an old farmhouse in upstate NY with their children and a small zoo of rescued animals.


  1. So interesting how iconic characters change over the years from their humble beginnings. Thanks for the info. Merry Christmas!

  2. Thanks, Connie. I really enjoyed researching this. My aunt lived in Irvington and it gave me a special connection to its namesake, Washington Irving. We know him best as the author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Rp van Winkle.

    I always appreciate you stopping by! Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  3. Informative and interesting post about Santa Claus. So many changes through the year. Merry Christmas.