Santa's New York Roots
Today there’s no question about the identity of the jolly red-suited, white-bearded, toy-carrying plump old man: It’s Santa Claus, of course. Throughout the mid-19th century, however, the identity of this famous gift giver was only just developing.
So how was the iconic image of Santa born?
Several New Yorkers inspired the personality, appearance, and traditions of this holiday favorite. Through cultural influences, writings, and illustrations, John Pintard, Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore, and Thomas Nast all helped to establish a modern representation of Santa Claus.
Jolly Old St. Nick
A number of legends associate Saint Nicholas with gift giving, aiding young people, imposing honesty, and rescuing those in need. As the patron saint of children and one of the most revered saints during the Middle Ages, folklore depicts Saint Nicholas as a giver of small gifts to well-behaved children on the eve of his feast day, December 6.
Portrayed as an elderly white-bearded man dressed in red bishop’s regalia, complete with staff and miter, Saint Nicholas delivered presents to children throughout Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and parts of Germany as early as the tenth century. This saint, despite his judgmental demeanor, was highly regarded by many 19th century New Yorkers and helped spark the evolution of an American Christmas gift giver.
Saint Nicholas in New York
Following the American Revolution, interest in the Dutch colonial history of New York surged, and Saint Nicholas became a favorite anti-British symbol of New York Historical Society founder, John Pintard.
Pintard held a strong interest in Saint Nicholas, promoting him as the patron saint of both the Society and the city as a whole throughout the early 1800s. Annual Society meetings were held on Saint Nicholas’ feast day, members were issued Saint Nicholas promotional materials, and Pintard even staged (unintentionally terrifying) visits between Saint Nicholas and his family.
“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” —Dr. David Hosack, New York Historical Society Banquet, 1809
This local promotion of Saint Nicholas attracted the attention of New York writer, Washington Irving.
Irving joined the New York Historical Society while writing the 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Likely inspired by Pintard, Irving featured Saint Nicholas prominently in this satirical history of the New Amsterdam Dutch, depicting him as a symbol of Dutch-American ethnic identity.
Altering the saint’s appearance from the tall, somber, commanding European image, Irving reinvented Saint Nicholas as a short, stout, merry, pipe-smoking Dutchman, dressed in traditional colonial attire. Though Irving sparked an initial transformation of Saint Nicholas, this Christmas figure was still far from the image of Santa Claus we know today.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
It was not until the 1822 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” when the familiar spirit of Santa Claus truly began to unfold. Written by Clement C. Moore, a professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary, this poem created an unprecedented characterization of Saint Nicholas.
Recognizable by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas,” Moore tells a story of a plump “jolly old elf” who traveled by reindeer-pulled sleigh and descended down chimneys to deliver presents to children’s stockings. A friend of Washington Irving, it is speculated that Moore’s version of Saint Nicholas was inspired by descriptions in Knickerbocker’s History of New York, and by real-life characteristics of the first governor of New Netherland and a portly Dutch neighbor of Moore’s.
Many details now synonymous with the legend of Santa Claus were first introduced in this poem, including changing Saint Nicholas’ visit to Christmas Eve instead of the Saint’s feast day or New Year’s Eve. While there lies some controversy about whether Moore was the true author of this poem, this depiction left a lasting imprint on American culture, forever changing Christmas lore.
As the Americanized version of Saint Nicholas gained distinction from his European predecessor, so did his name.
Though Sinterklaas is the Dutch phrase for Saint Nicholas, this word posed some difficulty for American English speakers and prompted an evolution of the gift giver’s title. Before Americans collectively settled on “Santa Claus,” some early naming attempts include St. Aclaus, St. Iclaus, Sancte Klaas, St. Claas, St. a claus, and Santeclaw.
A Signature Look
Interpretations of Santa’s appearance were very imaginative throughout the 19th century. Depictions ranged from thin to fat, elf-like to human man, and costumes were not standardized; No one was quite sure what this gift-giver should look like.
Creating an entire world for Santa built upon the traditions described by Clement Moore and the influences of German Christmas folklore, Nast captured trademark elements of Santa’s image as his drawings evolved. A long white beard, black boots, and red suit trimmed with fur are just a few of these identifying features. Portrayed as a round, cheerful, elderly man, Nast's drawings also added some key details to Santa’s backstory: a home at the North Pole and toy-building elf assistants.
Santa's celebrity status and iconic appearance was further cemeted in roles such as Coca Cola’s longstanding advertising campaign and growing holiday commercialism.
A figure rooted in centuries-old legends and decades-long American transformation, Santa Claus as a pop culture icon is here to stay.
Learn more about the history of Santa Claus through the following materials:
- Christmas in America: A History
- Encyclopedia of Christmas
- Encyclopedia of New York State: “St. Nicholas”
- Knickerbocker Santa Claus
- Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men
Find Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly illustrations of Santa Claus in the HarpWeek database. Also search for articles describing early St. Nicholas and Santa Claus traditions in the America’s Historical Newspapers and Proquest Historical Newspapers databases.