How Santa Claus came to America
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Christmas Week 2014 has been fraught with contention in New York, but before we blame the politicians — or, as Mayor Bill de Blasio sees it, the media — for marring the season, we’d do well to remember that it was in the pages of a New York newspaper that Santa Claus first appeared on these shores some three years before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.
Paradoxically, at least for those of us who often decry excessive political partisanship, it is also a matter of historical record that Americans owe their familiarity with the legend of Saint Nicholas in part to the rivalry between Jefferson’s devotees and the Federalist Party.
And it was on this date in 1823 that an anonymous poem appeared (yes, in a newspaper in New York state) that fleshed out the image of Santa Claus — the “right jolly old elf” — whom children of all ages carry in their heads to this day.
The legend of Nicholas, a saint in the early church, first came out of the Mediterranean, and had nothing to do with reindeer or elves or even Christmas morning. The patron saint of sailors for many years, Nicholas’ most singular attribute was generosity: He would sometimes throw bags of gold into strangers’ houses anonymously.
As the Christian faith spread northward, Nick’s munificence was fused with the existing traditions of Germanic tribes and soon-to-be-converted Norsemen. The death of Saint Nicholas and the birth of Christ were conflated into one event, for starters, then grafted onto the ancient winter solstice celebration of Yule.
Along the way, Saint Nick was given a mode of transportation in the form of a steed formerly ridden by the Norse god Odin (who, by the way, kept a naughty list). In another version of the tale, this one featuring Thor, a team of goats was harnessed to a sleigh. As for reindeer, well that brings us back to our morning homily:
Writing under the satirical pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving penned a book in 1809 called “A History of New-York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.”
The story was intended as a Federalist Party send-up of the Jeffersonians. Some of the sources of this political rivalry are pointless today, while others — notably, divergent perceptions of race relations — seem quite current. That being said, much of Washington Irving’s satire eluded the author’s audience even at the time. His readers were simply mesmerized by tales of a guardian saint named Nicholas, who is depicted shimmying down chimneys to give leave presents for children on Christmas Eve.
Irving drew on the traditions of early Dutch settlers who had brought with them from Holland tales of “Sinterklaas” and his sleigh. As for the flying reindeer, they first make an appearance in 1821 in a volume titled “The Children’s Friend” (sometimes called “Old Santeclaus”), one of the first lithographed books published in America.
Then, two years later, on this very day, Orville L. Holley, editor of an upstate New York semi-weekly newspaper named the Troy Sentinel, published an anonymous poem titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”
You know it by another name, taken from the first line of the poem: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Its author was later revealed to be Clement C. Moore, a local theologian and scholar. Alas, the virtuosity of the verses, along with its mysterious provenance, lent itself over the years to the temptations of hogging credit for Moore’s work. For years, members of another local family made just such a claim on behalf of their ancestor, Henry Livingston Jr.
Fifteen years ago, his descendants persuaded a gullible literary sleuth at Vassar to make Livingston’s case. The resulting book turned out to be a very unpersuasive argument, although in the end it may have enhanced Clement Moore’s reputation: The Vassar professor points to Moore as a likely author of “The Children’s Friend” as well.
Three decades later, Bavarian-born Thomas Nast — an illustrator who would make his name as a political cartoonist — fleshed out the image of Saint Nick that dances in our heads (and in the movies, if not always in the cookie-cutter Santas of shopping malls) to this day.
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.
His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!