Knickerbocker Santa Claus

by Charles W. Jones*, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1954

An account of the true development of Santa Claus in New York and thereafter throughout the United States. Jones carefully recounts the evidence that Santa Claus was the creation of 19th century patriots, rather than a hold-over from the Dutch colonial period.

Title page
Visit from Saint Nicholas, 1862 edition
Illustration: F. A. O. Darley
St Nicholas Center Collection

According to the consensus of informed historians1, the cult of St. Nicholas was, before the Reformation, the most intensive of any nonbiblical saint in Christendom. For example, according to Meisen's census there were 2,137 ecclesiastical dedications to Nicholas in France, Germany, and the Low Countries alone before the year 1500. Yet Professor Börsting has pointed out the incompleteness of these figures by indicating how, in the single diocese of Münster, there were fifty dedications, not eight, as Meisen calculated. According to Bond, there are 204 dedications to St. George in the England he patronizes; but there are 446 to St. Nicholas. Church dedications are only a single measure, hardly a gauge of Nicholas's popularity, since his cult was more than most disparaged by the clergy because his appeal was primarily secular, mercantile, and thaumaturgic.

The popularity and abuse of such an image helped to bring the Reformation to a head. The Reformation was an age of violence. The reformers tried violently by prayer, force, law, and scorn to erase St. Nicholas from our minds; and in this the counter-reformers agreed with them. Though the reformers and counter-reformers bled St. Nicholas, he has lived on in all parts of Europe. The cults are local—just such customs as escape the eyes of kings and prelates, teachers and poets. In Wales and Crete, he is invoked by fishermen. In Southampton and Tripoli he guards sailors and merchants. In Russia, he still protects communists from wolves. In Poland and France he brings husbands and babies. In Aberdeen and Bologna he gives passing marks to college students. But in the main, his place of safety is among children. Children will outwit reformers every time—all except those well-behaved English children. English children were taught to forget all about St. Nicholas; recently their American cousins have reintroduced him to the English family. But on the Continent, St. Nicholas continued to hide his nuts and apples in the shoes beside the bed from the Middle Ages to this year 1954; some of these customs are five hundred to a thousand years old. Sometimes Nicholas had to disguise himself pretty effectively—as Père Noel, the Weihnachtsmann, Knecht Ruprecht, Kris Kringle, and the like. Where reformers were especially active, his appearance shifted from his own day, December 6th, to some acceptable holiday or feast like Christmas, Innocents Day, New Year, or Epiphany.

We should expect so popular an image to be brought to America, and it was—before the Reformation. The cathedral of the Vikings in Greenland was dedicated to St. Nicholas; Columbus on his first voyage named a port in Haiti for St. Nicholas; and the Spaniards called what is now Jacksonville, Florida, St. Nicholas Ferry. But the colonizing of America and the Reformation concurred, and the American colonists were preponderantly reformers.

Individual European emigrants have continuously imported Nicholas customs. In ethnic groups before they are absorbed into our culture, these customs may be community-wide and may last for a generation or two. For instance, in Buffalo and like places where there was a heavy concentration of Germans who immigrated around 1840, St. Nicholas would call at each home on Nicholas Eve, December 5th, to take orders for presents to be delivered on Christmas. The custom lasted for sixty years or so, but has now, I believe, disappeared. In the Dutch communities of Michigan and Iowa, St. Nicholas used to call with oranges and switches on December 6th. Among the Germans of Pennsylvania, a conservative ethnic group, Kris Kringle (a corruption of Christ Kindlein) and Pelznichol (that is, Furry Nicholas) were imported in the eighteenth century and still leave traces. In my town of Ithaca, N.Y., a family which immigrated from Vienna only five years ago invited me to their songs, games, and gifts on Nicholas Eve—all a very recent importation from Austria. As soon as the children of the family grow a bit older, the customs will probably disappear. Such holdover customs of the old country die here—quickly, if the group is quickly assimilated; more slowly if, like the Pennsylvania Germans, they resist the melting pot. Like tuberculosis germs, Nicholas customs are always coming into our social body. But germination does not become virulent unless a unique set of conditions and a unique set of men change a latent infection into a plague.

Santa Claus has certainly reached plague proportions now. This year, there will be about seven thousand emaciated little men, padded out with pillows and other stuffing, bad-fitting cotton beards (washable, fireproof nylon beards and wigs for Santa Clauses cost $24.95 at Gimbels), red cheese-cloth, and black oilcloth boots, ringing bells at seven thousand corners of these United States, distracting citizens and cutting down on the capital goods production of the country. In New York City there are, or recently have been, three schools solely for the training of Santa Clauses; these Gotham schools are imitated in other major cities. Macy's parade now has counterparts from coast to coast—even in my upstate town of 20,000 people. The post office at Santa Claus, Indiana (established 1852, population still less than 100), handles nearly four million pieces of mail yearly, and even in midsummer is a tourists' paradise. North Pole, in the Adirondacks, has been a recent commercial success, as the incidence of gaudy signs on car bumpers testifies.

According to May Lamberton Becker in the Herald Tribune, sixty new books specifically about Christmas were published in 1952. Six had Santa Claus as their theme. The Library of Congress lists, for the single year 1947 alone, twenty-two new songs with Santa Claus as the first word in the song (I have no way of knowing how many more songs had the name somewhere in them). According to Tin Pan Alley that year: Santa Claus is Due; Santa Claus Has Moved to Indiana; Santa Claus for President; Santa's on His Way; Santa, Dear Santa; and Santa Drives Again. This number does not include St. Nicholas; for instance, in that year 1947, Benjamin Britton composed his cantata, St. Nicolas.

Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas
Woodcut: Salter, 1947
St Nicholas Center Collection

Now that the Republicans are in, the cartoonists have had to hunt for a new idea; before the last Presidential election, Santa Claus threatened to displace Uncle Sam as the national symbol. But he is not losing ground: In New York City we have St. Nicholas Cathedral and, until recently, The Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. We also have St. Nicholas Avenue and St. Nicholas Arena, not to mention the beauty shop, drug store, etc., quite irreverently dedicated to the saint. The St. Nicholas over the door to the Baptistry at St. John the Divine is our saint. The St. Nicholas Society and the St. Nicholas Club wear their dedications in their titles; but The New-York Historical Society observes St. Nicholas Day by listening to a lecture or other entertainment, then eating traditional Dutch goodies spread out on long tables in one of their galleries, while The Holland Society, The Long Island Historical, and the Knickerbocker Society show their devotion in their own several ways.

Now this is plague indeed. We are running a high fever from Santa Claus. Ours is not the European saint, but an American commodity, which we have exported to the whole world. In 1939, a nation-wide broadcast began: "W. L. White, speaking to you from Finland, the country where our legend of Santa Claus and his reindeer first began." But the Finnish Santa Claus, with reindeer, was an American export.

There is a popular explanation, which is about as accurate as most explanations of plagues—a legend which is repeated yearly in those Christmas books which blossom with the poinsettias. The legend has been essentially static for a century. It is most clearly and simply stated in Mary L. Booth's History of the City of New York (pages 192–195), published in 1859:

The Dutch had five national festivals which were observed throughout the city; namely, Kerstrydt (Christmas); Nieuw jar (New Year); Paas (the Passover); Pinxter (Whitsuntide); and Santa Claus (St. Nicholas or Christ-kinkle day) . . . . But Santa Claus day was the best day of all in the estimation of the little folks, who, of all others, enjoy holidays the most intensely. It is notable, too, for having been the day sacred to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of New York, who presided at the figure-head of the first emigrant ship that touched her shores, who gave his name to the first church erected within her walls, and who has ever since been regarded as having especial charge of the destinies of his favorite city. To the children, he was a jolly, rosy-cheeked little old man, with a low-crowned hat, a pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe of immense length, who drove his reindeer sleigh loaded with gifts from the frozen regions of the North over the roofs of New Amsterdam for the benefit of good children. Models of propriety were they for a week preceding the eventful Christmas eve. When it came, they hung their stockings, carefully labelled, that the Saint might make no mistakes, in the chimney corner, and went early to bed, chanting the Santa Claus hymn, in addition to their usual devotions. [Miss Booth then transcribed Pintard's Historical Society verses, which I shall discuss later.] ... These rhymes, Mr. Valentine tells us, continued to be sung among the children of the ancient Dutch families as late as the year 1851. But the custom passing away, and the Christmas gifts are now given prosaically without legend or tradition. [Among devotees, Santa Claus seems always to disappearing.]

Nearly everyone repeats this story. Mrs. Van Rensselaer2 repeated it, and from her Stokes3 picked it up. Some of it creeps in the latest doctoral dissertation on New Netherland.4 But when we look at the evidence—that is, the newspapers, magazines, diaries, books, broadsides, music, sculpture, and merchandise in past times, the picture is not substantiated. Miss Booth seems to be correct in only one essential; that is, that our cult of Santa Claus spread from here in New York.

But there is no evidence that it existed in New Amsterdam or for a century after English occupation. To use Dr. Edgar Romig's phrase, the Dutch were hagiophobic to a preeminent degree. New Amsterdam was controlled by the Reformation government of Holland. Meisen5 transcribes a few of many laws, passed against St. Nicholas by that government. I quote but part of one ordinance, from Amsterdam:

Since the magistrates [of Amsterdam] have learned that in previous years notwithstanding the publishing of the Bylaws, on St. Nicholas Eve various persons have been standing on the Dam and other places in the town with candy, eatables, and other merchandise, so that a large crowd from all over town gathered, . . . the same magistrates, to prevent such disorders and to take the superstition and fables of the papacy out of the youths' heads, have ordered, regulated, and opined that on Nicholas Eve no persons, whoever they may be, are to be allowed on the Dam or any other places and streets within this town with any kind of candy, eatables, or other merchandise . . . [under penalty of very severe fines].

Of course, the very presence of such laws shows that St. Nicholas was lurking underground, like Karl Marx, and that the Dutch feared subversion. But if the citizens of New Netherland had defied the laws of their country by giving aid and solace to the enemy, wouldn't some record of the treason appear? None is known.

I have not found evidence of St. Nicholas in any form—in juveniles or periodicals or diaries—in the period of Dutch rule, or straight through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the year 1773. It is possible that evidence to substantiate this legend exists somewhere. I only say that it has not yet been cited, and that I and those who have graciously assisted me have searched more specifically for it than have, for instance, H. L. Mencken for his American Language and the editors of the Dictionary of American English, who also found nothing.

The first evidence is an item in Rivington's Gazetteer for December 23, 1773:

Last Monday the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron's; where a great number of sons of that ancient saint celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.

Another notice appeared in 1774. Then no other mention of St. Nicholas until 1793, long after the Revolution.

These two items, though well known and discussed for the past hundred years, have never been explained, although many have commented that those Sons of St. Nicholas did not seem to know their father's birthday—putting it on December 2nd one year and December 12th the next. But the items can be explained.

In the year 1756, local Scots formed the St. Andrew's Society, a benevolent and social organization, patterned upon similar societies in Boston and Charleston. Under the leadership of Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence, it numbered many patriots; but in the pre-Revolutionary heat following the Stamp Act in 1765, it became somewhat Tory. For instance, in the year 1773, its president was Lord Drummond.

The success of this society led to the establishment of parallel societies for the other three British nations: St. David's for the Welsh, St. Patrick's for the Irish, and St. George's for the English. According to Weyman's New York Gazette, April 13, 1761, "The anniversary feast of St. George is to be held" at the House of James Elliott, at Corlear's Hook. In 1762, according to the New York Mercury:

On this day, the Anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst, gave a ball to the Ladies and Gentlemen of this City, at Crawley's New Assembly Room. The Company consisted of 96 ladies, and as many Gentlemen, all very richly dressed, and 'tis said the Entertainment was the most elegant ever seen in America.

The most elegant up to 1762, that is. From then on, St. George's parties grew more lavish and officialdom more irritating to the patriots, especially to underprivileged patriots.

They reacted as patriots do. Of the variety of reactions, I describe only one—The Sons of St. Tammany. By 1771, the Sons of St. Tammany were meeting in Philadelphia and Annapolis. It is specifically stated that these meetings were intended to counteract St. George and the other British saints. The patriots had, derisively, canonized a non-British, native American as their patron, and observed his Day on May 1st each year. Tammany had started out King Tammany, in opposition to King George; but in 1771 it had become St. Tammany, in opposition to St. George.

New York was a different government from Pennsylvania. New Yorkers might borrow an attractive idea from their neighbors, but they would stamp it with their own trade-mark. The same sardonic humor that led Philadelphians to sanctify a misty Delaware chieftain made New York patriots look about for a proletarian local equivalent, antipathetic to the opprobrious British symbol.

Dutch family scene
The Feast of St. Nicholas
by Jan Steen (1626-1679)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Print: St Nicholas Center Collection

Now St. Nicholas in the eighteenth century was no longer anathema to reformers, as he had been in the seventeenth. Even before the end of the seventeenth century, Jan Steen and other northern painters were creating their lovable scenes of St. Nicholas Eve. Unlike England, the Continent had learned to tolerate its children's idols.

There is no evidence that St. Nicholas suggested Holland to the New York patriots; for a century, ever since the Whig revolt in England, Holland was increasingly cut off from the Colonies, and as Hanover replaced Orange on the English throne the Dutch, if noticed at all, were not noticed with favor. When New Yorkers resurrected St. Nicholas, they did so because he was anti-British, not because he was pro-Dutch; and he was not to be taken seriously.

We know that throughout the eighteenth century New Year Day was an indigenous New York holiday, talked about in Boston and Philadelphia as belonging to New York. Gift-giving on that day was a custom of merchants; "the bakers' dozen" was limited to that day. As early as 1680, Charles Wolley wrote: "The English observed one custom, and that without superstition, I mean the strenarum commercium, as Suetonius calls them, a neighbourly commerce of presents every New-Years day." Note that he thought the custom English, not Dutch. On New Year Day all families of standing served brandy and imported cookies, made by the best Continental bakers. There are many later records to the effect that these were St. Nicholas cookies, and the calendar and habits of the time make the statements tenable.6 Such cookies might have been baked at almost any center on the Continent.

We cannot know whether these cookies gave the patriots their idea. They might have gotten it from any one of the germinal ideas of emigrants which were brought to America to die. What we can assert with surety is that New York patriots formed a local society and dedicated it to St. Nicholas as a New York symbol, just as Philadelphians sanctified Tammany—all because of St. George.

I emphasize that there is a good chance that these patriots never had Holland in mind at all. Until the Revolution broke out Holland was forgotten in New York. Irving could say with fairness that until he published his Knickerbocker History in 1809, few citizens knew "that New York had ever been called New Amsterdam or had heard of the names of its Dutch governors or cared a straw about their ancient Dutch progenitors". The best estimates indicate that in this period the number of Dutch in the Colonies did not noticeably outnumber French, Flemish, Walloons, or Swedes, and were outnumbered by Germans—all of whom together constituted but ten per cent of the population. John Pintard, according to the evidence the next to invoke St. Nicholas, was a Huguenot.

And by the way, Santa Claus is not a characteristically Dutch corruption. The place it has survived from early times is Switzerland and southern Germany. Both Nick and Claus are natural phonetic changes. Santa is a Teutonic form, a phonetic change from Sanct Herr. The most common Dutch form now, as then, is the analogous Sinterklaes.

This, then, is our best current knowledge about the Sons St. of Nicholas in the years 1773 and 1774.

Then came the Revolution. St. George took over New York with the Redcoats, and Nicholas retired to the cookie crock. From Philadelphia, St. Tammany exercised his patronage wherever the patriot armies moved—even in the Jersey marshes. The hagiolatry stirred up by revolutionary temper made popular a whole cycle of saints. For instance, here are the first two of 22 stanzas of a song composed by Leacock, first presented on the Philadelphia stage in 1776:

Of St. George, or St. Bute, let the poet laureate sing,
Of Pharoah or Pluto of old,
While he rhimes forth their praise, in false, flattering lays,
I'll sing of St. Tamm'ny the bold, my brave boys.
Let Hibernia's sons boast, make Patrick their toast,
And Scots Andrew's fame spread abroad,
Potatoes and oats, and Welsh leeks for welsh goats,
Was never St. Tammany's food, my brave boys.

There were many such songs. The authors ransacked history and legend for patron saints. "E'en the poor Negro will a while resign/His furrows, to adorn Saint Quaco's shrine . . ." (1788). In this period Antonie's Nose, up the Hudson, is first referred to as St. Anthony's Nose. But no Santa Claus. He had not yet attained the stature of even a local symbol. If the legend were true, that Nicholas was the patron of New Amsterdam, he would certainly have appeared in these songs and similar popular comment.

John Pintard
John Pintrard
Image:Sons of Liberty Chapter

We come now to the founder of this Society, John Pintard—that singular mixture of heterogeneous particles, as Hazard called him.7 In the immediate post-Revolutionary era, he led innumerable new movements: in the Marine Society; in founding the historical societies of this country, starting with Massachusetts; in the first insurance company, the first savings bank; in the American Bible Society, and the General Theological Seminary; in the New York Common Council and in the State Assembly; in the Louisiana Purchase and the Erie Canal. He was a great patriot and a staunch Jeffersonian.

I said that St. Tammany appeared in the Jersey marshes. Who should be there, founding the New Jersey Society of the Sons of St. Tammany, No. I, but John Pintard. Kilroe, the most ardent student of Tammany, gives Pintard primary credit, not only for founding this New Jersey chapter, but also for nationalizing the Tammany societies, and for establishing the one here in New York. At all events, John Pintard wrote the Constitution and became Sagamore of the Society here.

He is an early Gothic revivalist. Patron saints run through his mind in connection with politics and commerce. These are the days, in 1789 to 1793, when his patriotism leads him to search for American history and antiquities; when he inspires Belknap to found the Massachusetts Historical; and when, blocked from founding a society in New York, he "engrafts" it, as he himself, writes, onto his Society of St. Tammany. That somewhat rowdy group of patriots was interested in regalia and picnics, not museums; but under Pintard's reign, they established the Tammany Museum of American Antiquities. That museum formed a pattern for this Society. When Tammany took a path uncongenial to him, Pintard founded The New-York Historical Society and transmuted his favorite ideas, including the idea of a museum and of a patron saint.

St. Nicholas was running around in Pintard's mind. The first appearance of the saint's name after the Revolution is in an almanac which Pintard created for himself in 1793. Then in a diary for 1797 he marks December 6th "Thanksgiving." Although almanacs were published in this country throughout the eighteenth century, and they include the saints of the Anglican prayer-book and even St. George, St. Patrick, St. David, and St. Lawrence, no one of the many includes St. Nicholas.8 Yet here he is, in Pintard's private almanac of 1793, the only saint in his calendar, alongside Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Whitsuntide; but also alongside Independence Day, Washington's Birthday, and the anniversary of the British evacuation of New York. It is demonstrable that Pintard helped to create Washington's Birthday and the Fourth of July as national holidays. It seems clear from this almanac that he was thinking of St. Nicholas and Nicholas Day in the same patriotic spirit and would push the cult for the same patriotic reasons. He, or more probably his patriot uncle, may have been at those pre-Revolutionary meetings of the Sons of St. Nicholas. At all events, as St. Tammany had become in his mind the patron saint of his nation, St. Nicholas had become the patron saint of his city. I suspect that he now found it very easy to associate St. Nicholas with the Dutch. The forgotten Dutch colonizing of New Amsterdam was now remembered with civic pride. Toasts were nightly being drunk to France, Holland,9 and the United States as the three republics where freedom ruled. Americans were grateful for the help of the two Continental countries.

Although Pintard left the city in the year of his 1793 almanac, he was back at the turn of the century and realized a major dream with the establishment of The New-York Historical Society in 1804. Soon that Society would be celebrating with him his special saint's day.

Today we are somewhat sheepish when we gather to acknowledge St. Nicholas as our patron. We do not realize what saintly patronage meant around the year 1800 when, for instance, St. Cecilia Societies were being formed in every town. We have substituted other symbols for saints. Tammany is no longer a saint, but a tiger. Even in this instance Pintard was in the van; for though he did not create the tiger, in his later days he referred to Tammany as a panther. Our United States is now symbolized by Uncle Sam; but in 1800, it was St. Tammany. Through Pintard, New York was symbolized by St. Nicholas, although very shortly Father Knickerbocker moved in.

In statements about St. Nicholas' patronage of The New-York Historical Society, the year 1810 is usually cited. That year the Society held its first anniversary dinner for St. Nicholas, and the well-known broadside (reproduced herewith) which Pintard had Alexander Anderson engrave was published at his own expense. But there is every reason to believe that Pintard imposed the St. Nicholas idea on the Society from its start in 1804. Systematic records for the period 1804–1809 are not extant. But according to one of the earliest records, on January 10, 1809, at the annual banquet of the Society, Dr. David Hosack (who because of Pintard's deafness was apt to give public utterance to Pintard's ideas) offered this toast:

To the memory of St. Nicholas. May the virtuous habits and simple manners of our Dutch ancestors be not lost in the luxuries and refinements of the present time.

At that same dinner, Washington Irving's name was proposed for membership. Hosack repeated the toast on September 4th at the 200th anniversary of Hudson's landing—a gala dinner given by the Society at the City Tavern, with Governor Tompkins, Mayor Clinton, and the whole Corporation present. The symbol was spreading.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Now we come to Washington Irving. At the very moment in January 1808 that Washington and Peter Irving had the inspiration which became the Knickerbocker History, Salmagundi10 noticed Santa Claus:

In his days, according to my grand-father, were first invented those notable cakes, hight new-year cookies, which originally were impressed on one side with the honest burly countenance of the illustrious Rip [Van Dam]; and on the other with that of the noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santeclaus:— of all the saints of the calendar the most venerated by true Hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants. These cakes are to this time given on the first of January to all visitors, together with a glass of cherry-bounce or raspberry brandy.

The embryo of the Knickerbocker History conceived at this date was, according to Irving, a take-off on the learned Doctor Samuel Latham Mitchill's guide to the City of New York. But to readers it must be clear that it was also a take-off on Mitchill himself.

Sic transit gloria! Today Mitchill is almost forgotten. Yet in 1808 he was everywhere. A few years later, he published a small book listing 194 famous events of American history which had himself at their centers. Professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at Columbia College, in these years 1804 to 1809 he was United States Senator, not by election, but by appointment of Clinton's party as Clinton's successor. As late as the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, there he was, wedding the waters with polysyllabic words and baroque images. So wined and dined was he that table and glass may well account for his failing powers. At his death, Pintard wrote to his biographer, Dr. Francis: "He rendered important services to his country by the promotion of science and literature. . . . Let not the merits and services of the active period of our eminent fellow citizen be veiled by the frailties of his old age."11

Although the Doctor was at the height of adulation in 1808, young Irving could see Mitchill's frailties as fit subjects for his humorous pen. A kindlier disposition than Irving's would be hard to find. But the learned Dr. Mitchill, who looks unbelievably pompous to us of another age, must have many a night been aped and parodied at Cockloft Hall. Now just at that moment, Mitchill was making a great play for Historicity. He was public orator for Pintard and DeWitt Clinton, and he was the waddling embodiment of The New-York Historical Society.12

Book cover
Knickerbocker History of New York
1894 edition

And so, when the History was published, it was derisively dedicated to this Society. Nor was that all. With a care and thoughtful planning that in no way marked the frenzied composition of the manuscript, Irving purposely published the History on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 1809. As a prelude, he ran ads for nearly a month before about the missing Knickerbocker to whet the public's appetite, as they did. Knickerbocker himself—the name literally means "child's marble baker"—is in certain flashes Mitchill, and in still other flashes Pintard and Hosack and Clinton.

Irving joined the Society while composing the History, apparently to gather material—just to see, we can imagine, what made those mortals tick; for they were then uncongenial to him. But he who came to scoff remained to pray. As Irving's biographer, Professor Stanley Williams, records, the act of writing this lovable satire interested the author in history, so that from his pen eventually flowed his Columbus, Astoria, and Washington. He learned, too, to take his St. Nicholas prayerfully; so that he was primarily responsible for the founding, in 1835, of the St. Nicholas Society.

Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus. The History contains no less than twenty-five allusions to him—many of them the most delightful flights of imagination in the volume. Here is the source of the legends about St. Nicholas in New Amsterdam—of the emigrant ship Goede Vrouw, like a Dutch matron as broad as she was long, with a figurehead of St. Nicholas at the prow. Here are the descriptions of festivities on St. Nicholas Day in the colony, and of the church dedicated to him. Here is the description of Santa Claus bringing gifts, parking his horse and wagon on the roof while he slides down the chimney.

Santa Claus was a parasitic germ until the Knickerbocker History in 1809; after 1809 Santa Claus spread like a plague which has yet to reach its peak.13 The History was nationally hailed as the first notable work of imagination in the New World. Here, at last, was American Literature. "I can remember," said William Cullen Bryant, "learning a passage from it for a declamation and drowning myself in laughter, drawing the rebuke of the tutor." It was quoted in Gotham taverns at a time when Temperance was not yet heard of.

Saint with beehive and dog, children with stockings at fireplace
St. Nicholas Broadside, New-York Historical Society, 1810
Woodcut: Alexander Anderson
St Nicholas Center Collection

The next December (1810), Pintard printed the Society's Sancte Claus goed heylig man, with a drawing made up of freshly coined iconography. Had there been a standard image, no new coinage would have been necessary or desirable.14 Though it is plain from Pintard's words that the verses were virtually unknown until he printed them, less than two weeks later the first American Santa Claus poem appeared in the New York Spectator (December 15, 1810). It is obviously derived from both the Pintard verses and the Knickerbocker History:

Oh good holy man! whom we Sancte Claus name,
The Nursery forever your praise shall proclaim:
The day of your joyful revisit returns,
When each little bosom with gratitude burns,
For the gifts which at night you so kindly impart
To the girls of your love, and the boys of your heart.
Oh! come with your panniers and pockets well stow'd,
Our stockings shall help you to lighten your load,
As close to the fireside gaily they swing,
While delighted we dream of the presents you bring.
Oh! bring the bright Orange so juicy and sweet,
Bring almonds and raisins to heighten the treat;
Rich waffles and dough-nuts must not be forgot,
Nor Crullers and Oley-Cooks fresh from the pot.
But of all these fine presents your Saintship can find,
Oh! leave not the famous big Cookies behind.
Or if in your hurry one thing you mislay,
Let that be the Rod—and oh! keep it away.
Then holy St. Nicholas! all the year,
Our books we will love and our parents revere,
From naughty behavior we'll always refrain,
In hopes that you'll come and reward us again.

Santa Claus was made by Washington Irving. As if that were not enough, his partner and brother-in-law, James K. Paulding, who could not leave a good joke alone, repeated it again and again. If we think of Paulding at all, and we should, we probably think of him as Secretary of the Navy under Van Buren. We forget the wide circulation of his fiction. His publisher gave him an advance royalty of $1400 on one book (The Dutchman's Fireside, 1830), and he published about thirty. You can tell something of his effectiveness by recalling that "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" is his. He published a volume entitled The Book of St. Nicholas, full of new-coined Nicholas-legend, straight out of the Salmagundi workshop.15 Santa Claus appeared regularly in other books of his. Irving, unlike Paulding, would not overwork a joke; but up would bob St. Nicholas in his stories of the Hudson as much as thirty years after the History.

From 1809, St. Nicholas was New York. As commerce shifted here from Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, this funnel of new immigration placed its stamp upon the popular culture of America. Immigrants, temporarily settled in the city while awaiting an opportunity to migrate to the hinterland, consciously tried to shed the manners of the Old World and don the manners of the New. The city set their standard. The next decades, too, established the city as the hub of publishing, of styles, and of the lively arts. No question, Irving made our Santa Claus. But who made his? The New-York Historical Society.

I mention but two other incidents in the maturation of Santa Claus. In both, members of this Society played a part.

Clement Clarke Moore
Clement Clarke Moore
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first, of course, is Clement Moore's poem, A Visit of St. Nicholas, written Christmas 1822.16 It has been known that Moore depended upon Irving. "Laying his finger aside of his nose" is a direct quote from the History. I am not sure that Moore knew precisely what he was quoting—so commonplace had such quotations from the History become by 1822.

The legends about this poem are growing nearly as fast as legends about Santa Claus himself. For instance, there is a wide-spread legend that Clement Moore learned about Santa Claus from his Dutch gardener in a moment's pause from Moore's Hebrew studies. The germ was an off-hand remark of a member of Moore's family. But legend it surely is. By 1820, Santa Claus was fairly commonplace in New York journalism. Even this erudite son of the Episcopal Bishop of New York and President of Columbia College must have heard of Santa Claus after Irving. True, he would do his best to forget the image—for fifteen years he was silent about the doggerel he wrote, a long time to avoid fame for the sake of aesthetics. Moore was a most admirable man—a leading Hebrew scholar, benevolent and religious, and a loving father. But he was conventional in the best eighteenth-century manner, and pedantic. While he and Pintard were working together with Bishop Hobart and others for the establishment of the General Theological Seminary, Pintard recorded in his private notebook: "I told [Moore] not to speak slightly or disrespectfully of what he was totally ignorant. Is he a sample of the professors of the local school— . . . Eheu! professor."

Although I am a professor, I cannot wholly resent Pintard's attitude. I have read all of Moore's published poetry—probably I am the only man in this century to have done so. His imagination was derivative. His anapests and iambs never falter, and his diction is time-tested and secure. I do not mean that his delightful rhymes about St. Nicholas are out of character. There is a mood of irresponsibility that overwhelms fathers at the Christmas season, and in none is the mood more marked or more catastrophic in its results than in pedants. These sensitive souls, who must always be right as they front the world and consequently succeed in being only stuffy, are at that season caught with their inhibitions down. It seems to me that half of my respected colleagues spend their holidays chewing pencils over doggerel for their children. I imagine that some of it is remarkably good; but I shall never know, for the author is protected by the iron curtain of the family circle. Moore's St. Nicholas is Moore's, despite claims to the contrary. Even belly-jelly was a good classical rhyme in Moore's eighteenth-century models. But not the reindeer.

In Irving's History, in Paulding's stories, and the like, Santa Claus drives a horse and wagon. Arthur Hosking, in his True Story of a Visit from St. Nicholas, and other true-story writers say that Moore invented the reindeer. But did he? Moore knew how to multiply; he was perfectly capable of turning one reindeer into eight, and of naming them. Drayton was a favorite poet of his, and Drayton, in his Nymphidia, showed him how. Drayton turned Shakespeare's image of Queen Mab's lazy finger of a maid into waiting-maids called Fib and Tib, Pinck and Pin, Tick and Quick, Jill and Jin, Tit and Nit, and Wap and Win. Shakespeare showed Drayton; but who showed Moore?

Santeclaus with reindeer
Sante Claus
The Children's Friend, 1821

At the Historical Society's St. Nicholas Day celebrated a dozen years ago Mrs. Carson answered that question, when she told how she and Dr. Brigham of The American Antiquarian Society discovered a unique copy of a juvenile called The Children's Friend, published on Broadway just the year before Clement Moore wrote his poem. Illustrations, which, I understand, were the first published by lithograph in America, accompany eight quatrains about Santeclaus. The first quatrain:

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O'er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

is illustrated by a sprightly reindeer and sleigh.17

I doubt that Moore would have written St. Nicholas in any other year; fathers in a holiday frenzy seize the subject close at hand. In 1882 I the General Theological Seminary opened its doors, and its little faculty of six were in constant association. It was a strange faculty—all, or virtually all, questionable to Pintard, but beloved of Bishop Hobart. Pintard records that he especially fought and lost on the appointment of Gulian Verplanck as Professor of the Evidences of Revealed Religion. Pintard never could have felt warmly about Verplanck, but they had worked closely together as leaders of The New-York Historical Society. Pintard, and we, shall never understand that appointment. But neither did Verplanck's family; neither did the taverns of New York, where a younger Gulian had frolicked with Irving and the Cats of Kilkenny. Neither did the Historical Society, of which he was now a leading member, nor the Democrats, whom he represented in the Assembly and was shortly to represent in the Congress of the United States; nor the authors and artists whom he worked with and sponsored, nor the wealthy Dutch burghers, now, at last, by grace of Irving, the aristocracy of the city. Gulian was a devotee of Irving's Santa Claus; and he was Professor of the Evidences of Revealed Religion in the new Seminary. He could only have been in that chair because Moore put him there, with the concurrence of Bishop Hobart. He had been associated with Moore at Columbia. Gulian, who was the youngest and most brilliant Bachelor of Arts ever to graduate at Columbia, could write the kind of classical criticism Moore understood and appreciated.18

Those who have read July's enjoyable biography know that Gulian occupied any chair only for the purpose of talking. Every faculty has its Gulian, who perches himself 0n his colleagues' desks and pours out his moment's enthusiasm. They cannot choose but hear. And in 1822 Verplanck's enthusiasm was Santa Claus. So there is, I believe, an element of truth in the myth about Clement Moore's Dutch gardener; only the gardener was Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, collaborator with Sands and Bryant on The Talisman, Peter Puff, the pseudonymous author of The Bucktail Bards, friend of James Fenimore Cooper (who refers to Santa Claus in The Pioneers, which he was writing at this moment); a founder of the St. Nicholas Society and the St. Nicholas Club. At Christmas 1822, Verplanck and Moore were close indeed. If you think, as I do, that St. Nicholas is a little out of Moore's natural channel, look to Gulian Verplanck, in some ways the most typical of the Knickerbockers.

Elfin figure at fireplace
Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus
Painting: Robert Weir, 1837
The New-York Historical Society

In 1951 The New-York Historical Society acquired a lovely painting of Santa Claus through the generosity of the late Mr. Zabriskie, who was one of the latest in a long line of friends of Santa Claus. Dr. Vail has published two very informative articles19 on this painting and on a watercolor sketch from which it was done by Robert Weir, Professor of Painting and Drawing at the Military Academy at West Point, in 1837.

Among the Society's papers is a series of letters from Weir to Verplanck. This correspondence indicates, first, that before the publication of Moore's poem in The New York Book of Verse in 1837 Weir had done still another picture of St. Nicholas at Verplanck's request. That St. Nicholas is apparently lost. The Society's picture was primarily done to sell to Verplanck, or to Ward if Gulian did not want it, for $200, which Weir badly needed. Weir regarded the Society's picture as the best work he had done to date.

In the early thirties, Verplanck was Professor of History and Weir was Professor of Perspective in Samuel F. B. Morse's National Academy of Design. Verplanck the editor was the first to publish Weir's work, and Verplanck the politician got Weir his appointment at West Point. Weir reciprocated, as the correspondence indicates (Feb. 19, 1838), by naming one of his numerous progeny for Gulian.

Weir, at West Point, was trying to rear a family of what was eventually eleven children on a salary of $900 a year and house. In 1836 Weir was in debt; he was also angling for a commission to paint one of the panels for the Rotunda in the new national Capitol. The commission meant a sum fabulous for any professor in any time—ten thousand dollars. Two voices that would help to determine who would get this prize were Verplanck's and Washington Irving's. While Weir was painting our St. Nicholas—Irving's subject, and one specifically commissioned by Verplanck—a committee was meeting in Washington to decide the commission.

I am happy to report that even as Weir shipped his second Santa Claus, the Society's painting, to Gulian, he received word of his award. Six years later, his panel on a truly Dutch subject—The Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft-Haven—was sent on a triumphant tour of the country before being installed in the Rotunda, where it can still be seen. This is a demonstrable argument that it pays to believe in Santa Claus.

*Dr. Jones, Professor of English at the University of California (formerly at Cornell University), delivered an address which forms the basis for the present article at the New-York Historical Society's St. Nicholas Day celebration, December 4, 1953.

Charles W. Jones is the author of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, University of Chicago Press, 1978. He is one of the foremost scholars to have examined Saint Nicholas place through the centuries and how he became Santa Claus in the United States. Jones work is carefully researched and footnoted. back

1. Of reliable books written on aspects of the European cult, unfortunately none is in English, unless we count an excellent dissertation by Dr. Otto Albrecht, Four Latin Plays of St. Nicholas, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935. Of the many valuable Continental works, I mention only the scholarly edition of early Greek lives by Gustav Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1913-1917; the popular French work by Eugène Marin, Saint Nicolas, 2d ed., Paris, 1930; and the monumental study of Karl Meisen, Nikolauskult and Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande, Düsseldorf, 1931, which contains plates of more than two hundred representations from the plastic arts, most judiciously selected. The Bollandist Acta Sanctorum does not include Nicholas because that edition has not yet reached December 6. back

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, History of New York City in the Seventeen Century (New York, 1909), II, 151-2. back

N. Phelps Stokes, Iconography of Manhattan Island, index, S. V. back

E. L. Raesly, Portrait of New Netherland, New York: 1945. An exception the excellent dissertation of K. Richards, How Christmas Came to the Sunday Schools, 1934, who, p. 52, expresses doubt about the New Amsterdam origin Santa Claus. back

Karl Meisen, op. cit., chapter II. back

Saint Nicholas Cookie
Saint Nicolaas Cookie, made in 18th century Dutch mold
Historic Hudson Valley
Croton-on-Hudson, New York
St. Nicholas Center Collection

6. In old times St Class used to cross the Atlantic & brought immense supplies of cookies &c. from Amsterdam . . ."—John Pintard to his daughter Mary, 21 Jan. 1819 (ed. Barck I, 164). Throughout the Germanic and Gallic world St. Nicholas was the most famous name in cookies at that time. Even today Nicholas cookies are sold from Vienna to Ghent, and the bakers advertise that they are made in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century molds. Moreover, Nicholas Eve, for which the cookies were baked in advance, was, according to the English and Colonial calendar November 24th, not December 5th, as it was on the Continent. England and America adopted the New Style in 1752. back

Belknap Papers, II, 162. back

To my knowledge, the first appearance of St. Nicholas in a published almanac is Longworth's Directory for 1816-17; the name does not appear in the first issue, 1815-16. back

. "When, in 1796, America's external debt stood at twelve million dollars, the whole amount was owed to Holland." (See NYHS Quarterly, April 1953, pp. 170–184; esp. 180-181.) back

. No. XX, Monday, Jan. 25, 1808. back

. As youths, Mitchill and Pintard were both pupils of Leonard Cutting. Cutting married a Pintard, and Mitchill was his greatest student. Cutting "early predicted the future eminence of his pupil, and contributed by his praise and encouragement to its fulfillment." (N.Y. Genealogical and Biographical Society, Records II, 162.) back

Later, Gulian Verplanck (in his The State Triumvirate, 1819) was to take a dig at the same group:

Hark! hear the philosophers-loudly they swear
From thy laurel-crown'd head its honours to tear,
And thou, too, my David—with what a blithe air,
Great H-s-ck usurps the historical chair!
While Magnanimous M-tch-ll claims as his own
To sit sov'reign lord on Philosophy's throne. back

13 Only three years later a juvenile (False Stories Corrected, published by Samuel Wood, 357 Pearl Street) tried to debunk "Old Santaclaw, of whom so often little children hear such foolish stories; and once in the year are encouraged to hang their stockings in the Chimney at night, and when they arise in the morning, they find in them cakes, nuts, money, etc. placed there by some of the family, which they are told Old Santaclaw has come down Chimney in the night and put in. Thus the little innocents are imposed on by those who are older than they, and improper ideas take possession, which are not by any means profitable." back

Eighteen years later Pintard wrote, in a letter to his daughter, that he had heard some lines of this verse from his mother-in-law, but could only learn all of the words from a Mrs. John Hardenbrook (aet. 87) through Judge Benson. Both women had Dutch connections. The verses, as printed in Pintard's broadside, are related to an eighteenth-century Dutch song, somewhat debased, presumably by oral transmission. At this late date Pintard wrote that his children had sung the verses as infants; but it is doubtful. The ease with which the mind confuses the chronology of popular customs is well documented. For example, Pintard set the appearance of St. Nicholas on December 6th in his calendar and in the first days of the Society; in 1820 he set the appearance on New Year Day; but now in 1828 he set it on Christmas, and thought it had occurred on Christmas throughout his life. When St. Nicholas was introduced into New York households, the date of visitation usually depended on the sect of the family. Strict Anglican families would not give gifts at the New Year (despite the English commercial custom alluded to above) because that day was a pagan holiday. The Reformed-Church families would not give gifts on Christmas because it was a Christian holy day. Moore (professor in an Anglican seminary) in 1822 wrote, "The night before Christmas"; but there are printings of his verses during the next twenty years in which the line is changed to, "The night before New Years." These religious scruples only gradually disappeared. There are evidences of Santa Claus's visitation on New Year's Eve as late as the 1850's. No doubt the popularity of Moore's verses helped to center the event on Christmas. Pintard gradually drifted from his Huguenot church; by 1828 he was firmly installed in the Anglican communion, to which his family subscribed. back

It may be noted that Paulding, who published documents and studies of New Amsterdam which are still serviceable, never mentions St. Nicholas in such works. For example, in Stuyvesant, pp. 65-66, he writes on "Festivals and Amusements of the People." He reports only three holidays: Christmas, New Year, and May Day. back

Doubt has been cast on the assignment of these verses to Moore (cf. The Bookman, Dec. 1920, pp. 300-305). I can see no reason whatever for the doubt. Anapests for children's verse were standard; see the 1810 verses quoted above. From 1838 the sensationally popular verses were attributed to him, and he not only subscribed to the attribution but included the verses in a reprint of his poetry and deposited a holograph copy of the poem at The New-York Historical Society. Moore, of all men, was the soul of honor. back

Although travelling zoos and circuses were popular at the time, none of the ads, broadsides, or news items indicates any reindeer. Strangely enough this association of Santa Claus and reindeer, or rather, of the winter holidays and reindeer, may have resulted from the launching at Medford, December 12, 1814, of the brig Reindeer. Because of the disasters of the Napoleonic and British wars, this event was widely discussed in the press at the time of the Christmas and New Year holidays. back

Gulian, too, was primary in the forming of the Knickerbocker History. He and Washington Irving were at that time fellow readers in law in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman. Gulian married Hoffman's sister-in-law (Miss Fenno); Washington became engaged to Hoffman's daughter. Although Gulian's mother was a notorious Anglophile during the Revolution, and his father no ardent patriot, Gulian, during the period of post-Revolutionary exaltation of Holland, began to boast his Dutch extraction, as did other New Yorkers. Gulian could have been both an inspiration and a source for Irving; in fact, we may guess, in the absence of records, that it was Gulian who introduced Irving to this Society. According to his nephew, many years later: "I remember when Washington Irving first came from Europe, on a Sunday shortly after his return, Mr. Verplanck and my brother Ogden Hoffman unexpectedly dropped in to dinner. My sister Mrs. Annie Nicholas, was at home. All of them had been most intimate from their early years; Verplanck and Irving had studied law with my father. Verplanck had married my aunt, and Irving had been engaged to my sister who had died while still young . . . . Irving had not seen them for many years and it was as if their youth had returned to them again . . . . Mr. Verplanck was fond of all old time customs, and celebrated Christmas with his grandchildren in the good old way. The Yule log was burned, the Boar's head adorned the table, the house was strung with green boughs, and Santa Claus (Kris Kringle) left his presents in appropriate costume." (N.Y. Genealogical and Bio- graphical Society, Records I, 52.) back

NYHS Quarterly, Oct. 1951, pp. 337-343; Oct. 1953, pp. 326-330. The painting is reproduced in color as frontispiece to the 1951 issue. back

"Knickerbocker Santa Claus" by Charles W. Jones, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1954, Volume XXXVIII Number Four, The New York Historical Society. Used by permission.

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