Updated: May 15, 2022
"The good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites."
Washington Irving, Knickerbocker's History of New York, 1809
Santa Claus has New York roots. The modern image of Santa can trace its origins back to a group of New York men-of-letters in the early decades of the 19th century.
It is widely regarded that the Christian Saint Nicholas inspired the idea of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra, a city on the southwestern coast of Turkey, during the late 3rd century CE. Much of what was written about him was done long after his death. There is evidence he might have been an attendee of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. In the 5th century, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (401 - 450 CE) dedicated a church to the saint in Myra. This event is one of the earliest mentions of the saint's name. Most of the later accounts of his life show him to be a generous man, taking care of the poor and protecting the innocent. Many of the stories that surround him are the giving of gifts. One story, for example, tells of a man who was once wealthy and had three daughters of marriageable age. Saint Nicholas knew the man could not afford dowries for his daughters, so the saint anonymously provided each daughter with money for a dowery, and they were saved from a life of prostitution.
Saint Nicholas is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox church and throughout the Christian West. He is the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants, the falsely accused, and not least of all children. The Eastern Orthodox church sings hymns to the saint each Thursday as part of their liturgical calendar. Since the medieval period, in Europe, secret gift-giving, a reminder of the saint's generosity, has been central to traditions associated with celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6th, the day he purported to have died. St. Nicholas Day, for centuries, was more widely observed than Christmas itself, especially in those parts of Europe where the many Protestant churches took hold. In the Low Countries, particularly the Netherlands, the Dutch refer to Saint Nicholas as Sint-Nicolaas or Sinterklaas. The figure of Sinterklaas is portrayed as an elderly and serious man with white hair and a beard. He wears a long red cape over a white alb and a red miter, and he holds a gold crosier or shepherd's staff. These are all traditional symbols of the bishop's office. Festivities begin in mid-November when Sinterklaas arrives at a chosen port city. He rides through town on a white horse accompanied by his assistant dressed in the Moorish style, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who tosses candy and cookies made from gingerbread to the gathered crowds of people. After this initial arrival, other towns will conduct their own Sinterklaas arrival events, and up to the time of December 5th, Sinterklaas visits many places like schools and hospitals. On December 5th, St. Nicholas Day Eve, children leave out their shoes next to the chimney along with a carrot or hay for Sinterklaas's horse. They sing songs before going to bed, and if they were good children, they would wake the following day to find a small gift in their shoes.
When the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam, what would become New York City, they brought the customs attached to the celebration of Sinterklaas. The day became less important when the English took over the colony later in the 17th century. New Year's Day became the favorite winter holiday among New York's wealthy classes from that point forward. (New Year's Eve was left to the working classes for revelry and mischief.) On this day, families exchanged gifts, and gentlemen called on friends and relations. They partook of cookies and raspberry brandy. But by the first decade of the 19th century, the city's rapid expansion had made this older custom impractical, and it was quickly disappearing altogether.
A group of wealthy merchants and professionals began lamenting the lack of culture within the city. The city's intellectual life suffered when the young Federal government moved from New York to Philadelphia. Starting in the 1790s, men who aspired to be men of letters formed associations to cultivate a municipal culture suited to the growing commercial center of the new nation. They met in parlor rooms, taverns, and coffeehouses to discuss art, literature, science, and politics. One of these men was John Pintard, the long-time city inspector. For many years, he advocated for an organization similar to the Massachusetts Historical Society founded in 1791. Finally, in 1804, Pintard gathered together a group of like-minded merchants, lawyers, and clergy. Having lived through the Revolutionary period, these men feared that the historical records and artifacts related to that pivotal moment would be lost. Therefore, they established the New-York Historical Society. The mission was to "collect and preserve" everything related to the history of the United States and New York State in particular. The society attracted prestigious professionals such as Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell, families with deep New York roots like the Stuyvesants, and political leaders such as Mayor De Witt Clinton. In 1809, the year the society was incorporated, they commemorated the bicentennial of Henry Hudson's voyage and discovery of New York harbor.
Pintard also lamented the disappearing New Year's Day traditions long celebrated in New York. To replace New Year's Day, he proposed that December 6th, St. Nicholas Day be the family holiday. At this time, a young Washington Irving, not yet the successful writer he would become, had just become a Historical Society member. That year, 1809, he published Knickerbocker's History of New York. Irving intended the work to be a parody of fellow society member Dr. Samuel Lantham Mitchell's The Picture of New-York; or the Traveller’s Guide through the Commercial Metropolis of the United States. Knickerbocker's History was a fictional account, narrated by one Diedrich Knickerbocker, of old Dutch New York and blurred the lines between history, tall tales, and Irving's imagination. In one of these tall tales, Irving relates the story of a shipwrecked Dutchman who has a vision of St. Nicholas. In this vision, St. Nicholas "came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” The saint tells the Dutch to settle on Manhatten, thereby becoming the patron saint of New Amsterdam. Irving's St. Nicholas was no stately bishop. He nicknamed him Sancte Claus, and he described him as a jolly, elfin Dutchman with a clay pipe who parked his wagon on rooftops and slid down chimneys to deliver goodies to children on his feast day.
One year after the publication of Irving's History of New York, Pintard launched an attempted revival of St. Nicholas Day. The Historical Society held a banquet at City Hall for all the members. They toasted, "Sancte Claus, goed heylig man!" A specially engraved picture by illustrator Alexander Anderson was distributed among those in attendance. The illustration shows St. Nicholas and two children, one presumably good and the other bad. Two stockings, one full and one empty, hang by the fireplace. The accompanying poem reads, "Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.” Pintard's efforts to revive St. Nicholas Day came to naught. By this time, many New Yorkers were revisiting Christmas as the main winter holiday to celebrate. (Since the Reformation, many Protestants believed Christmas to be a Catholic invention and declined to celebrate it.) But the idea of Sancte Claus would capture the popular imagination of the commercial-centered city.
It took a friend and fellow New-York Historical Society member, Clement Moore, to put the final details on the new image of St. Nicholas. Moore was a professor at the General Theological Seminary of NY. (Moore lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City at 10th Ave and 22nd Street.) In 1822, he wrote a poem for his children. The poem was called A Visit From Saint Nicholas and opened with the familiar refrain of "T'was the night before Christmas..." Moore published the poem anonymously in the Troy Sentinal on December 23rd, 1823. It became an instant sensation and established the key elements of Santa Claus. This 'jolly old elf" had a sleigh (rather than Irving's wagon) pulled by eight reindeer, and he descended chimneys to place gifts in waiting stockings. Moore possibly drew inspiration from his friend Irving, a real governor of New Amsterdam, and a Dutch neighbor in Chelsea. Santa's visit shifted from St. Nicholas Day Eve (December 5th) to Christmas Eve, the most significant change.
Even after Clement Moore, interpretations of what this "jolly old elf" should look like were not standardized. But by the Civil War, German-born Thomas Nast, a cartoonist with Harper's Weekly, would take Moore's description and blend it with his German heritage and folklore. Nast, working throughout the mid-19th century, introduced the country to a plump, cheerful elderly gentleman with a long white beard, black boots, and a red fur-trimmed suit. He also contributed to Santa's backstory, including living at the North Pole and toys built by elves.
Irving, Moore, and Nast contributed to creating a very American version of St. Nicholas. It departed from the tall, somber European image such as Father Christmas or Pere Noel. They transformed the saint into a stout, merry, pipe-smoking Dutchman. The marketing power of corporations like Coca-Cola would launch Santa into the icon of Christmas that he is today.
Santa Claus may live at the North Pole, but he is very much a New Yorker at heart.
Christmas in America: A History: Penne L. Restad
Knickerbocker Santa Claus: Charles Jones, NYHS (St. Nicholas Center)
The New York City Origins of Santa Claus: New-York Historical Society