In 1628, Dutch Dominie Jonas Michaelius organized a religious body called the Collegiate Church in New Amsterdam (New York City). Services were held in a large room over the grain mill.
In the Spring of 1633, Dominie Edwardus Bogardus succeeded Michaelius and built a plain wooden church on the banks of the East River at 33 Pearl Street. In 1642, under Director General Kieft, the Collegiate Church built a new stone church at 4 Bowling Green which was named St. Nicholas Church, which is said to be the oldest Protestant Church in America.
By the mid-1600s, an active open-air market operated daily in good weather all along Oranje’s (later Beverwyck, and eventually Albany) one main intersection where Jonkers (State Street) met Handelaers (Market Street and later Broadway) Street. In the middle of the intersection was the Dutch Church, the center of the village both physically and socially. Several hundred inhabitants, mostly Dutch, were huddled in small dwellings surrounding the church. Fort Orange was located just south of Jonkers and a ferry took people across the Hudson to the eastern section of Rensselaerswyck.
Oranje’s residents were mostly merchants, craftsmen and farmers interspersed with a few soldiers. The merchants set up stores, usually on the first floor of their homes where they displayed their goods. Stores selling trade goods such as clothing, tools, utensils, blankets, guns and rolls of cloth were interspersed with bakeries, taverns and lodging.
Some of the merchants and farmers parked wagons loaded with produce such as fruits, vegetables, grain, milk, hogs, chickens and sheep in the middle of the street, where they carried on a lively trade with Indigenous People and occasionally English and French travelers. In the summer, Oranje probably resembled a craft fair.
Native People called Oranje “Pempotawuthut” or “Place of Fire,” a council ground. It was here that they met with the Europeans and occasionally other Indian Nations to conduct trade and iron out differences.
Lack of a European-type currency caused the merchants to conduct some of their trade with the Indigenous currency called sewant (wampum), which was strings of shells. Indians approached the market with large bundles of furs that they had trapped. Each pelt weighed about 5 pounds and Indians were reported to carry bundles of up to 300 pounds on their backs.
The furs were brought to a fur trader, probably an agent of the Patroon Van Rensselaer, where they were traded for sewant. The sewant was then taken from merchant to merchant and used to purchase trade goods.
Although the price of beaver furs varied over time, Native People received (i.e.) 12 guilders of sewant for each fur from an agent of Van Rensselaer. Then they would take their 12 guilders of sewant to an Oranje merchant and purchase (again i.e.) 8 guilders of merchandise giving the Oranje merchant a 50% profit. The Oranje merchant would periodically order replacement merchandise from the Netherlands through the Van Rensselaers who accepted the sewant as payment. The Van Rensselaers kept the sewant and used it to make future purchases from the Indians.
If the Indians brought furs directly to an Oranje merchant they received 8 guilders of trade goods for each pelt, which amounted to the same trade rate.
The Van Rensselaers then exported the furs and sold them back in Amsterdam possibly to relatives who were involved in the fur and felt making industry.
Both the Dutch and the Indians were very happy with the arrangement and worked to protect it for many generations. It was the Indian’s only source of tools, clothing and weapons.
Early Beverwyck homes were neat and built of brick or occasionally stone with white pine shingles or tiles from Holland. Each home had a kitchen fireplace big enough to roast a whole pig or sheep. A large iron kettle filled with water was perpetually suspended from an iron bar in the fireplace providing a constant supply of hot water in the winter. Other pots and pans were suspended from the mantle on the front of the kitchen fireplace.
A large decanter of rum stood on the living room mantle, next to which was placed a finely finished cow’s horn, hollowed, carved and rimmed with silver. Each morning as he descended from the bedroom on the second floor, the Dutch father would pause to pour himself a horn of rum and probably light his long thin Dutch clay pipe at the fireplace.
Even though they were in America, the Dutch living in Oranje were very isolated from the other European settlers, who were mostly English. The Dutch maintained the traditions and beliefs of their home country. The great festival days were Keestijid (Christmas-December 25), Nieuwjaarsdag (New Year’s Day), Paaschdag (Easter), Pinksterfeest or Whituntide (a spring carnival) and the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6).
Christmas, December 25, was a religious day celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. The Dutch Church frowned upon secular celebrations on Christmas and sometimes fined residents for too much frivolity and diverting from religious observance.
Easter was another religious day celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Pinksterfeest was a spring carnival based on both Dutch and African tradition and by the 1800s it was presided over by Black residents of Albany.
In Albany’s earliest days, it was on New Year’s Eve that fat, jolly, boisterous, little St. Nicholas made his appearance, sometimes accompanied by his good-natured vrouw (wife), Molly Grietje. Santa Clause evolved from Sinter Klaas, the Dutch nickname for Sint Nikolaas (St. Nicholas).
Supposedly, Sint Nikolaas (270 – Dec. 6, 346) was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, part of modern day Turkey. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving such as putting coins in the shoes or stockings of children during the night. In 1087 a church was built in his honor in Bari in southern Italy and his remains were moved there. He was the patron saint of sailors, merchants and children and was also the patron saint of Amsterdam, Holland and later Nieuw Amsterdam (New York City), among many other places. It is important to know that Sint Nikolaas was a fable, the Roman Catholic Church has no record of ever canonizing St. Nikolaas.
On New Year’s Eve, the Dutch of Oranje would traditionally dress in their best clothing and attend church services in late afternoon. Almost every activity in Oranje started with, or revolved around, church services. Following church services, the family would go home to a feast that mother and older children had probably worked on all day. After dinner, a large fire was built in the living room fireplace and the family would gather round and sing their evening hymns to the good St. Nicholas to encourage him to visit their home.
One of the songs went: “Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) good holy man! Go your way from Amsterdam. From Amsterdam to Spain, from Spain to Oranje, and bring these little children toys.” After an hour or more of singing festive songs, they would then hang their stockings from the living room mantelpiece and hope that St. Nicholas would fill them with treats (and not coal) during the night.
The children were then “nestled all snug in their beds,” while during the night, when all were asleep, jolly old St. Nicholas visited each home and left treats such as sugar plums, fruits, oliekoeks (oil cakes), mince pies and small toys in the stockings of the inhabitants. The most popular treat was a small cake, more like a cookie, called a St. Nicholas cake. A St. Nicholas cake was similar to today’s gingerbread man but frosted to resemble St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas cakes were strung and hung from the decorated tree. The cakes were made by the local baker and a must-have for every child in Oranje.
In the morning, the children awoke to the treats and the celebration began. The celebration of New Year’s Day required that every resident of Oranje visit every other resident. Every door was thrown wide open and every friend and stranger was greeted with drink and refreshment. It was considered a breach of etiquette and bad luck to omit any acquaintance as each family made its rounds of the village. Dutch tradition required that this day be spent renewing old friendships and settling differences amicably.
At a later date, the Albany Dutch moved the arrival of Sinter Klaas to December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas in their homeland, The Netherlands, but the Oranje tradition of holding open houses and visiting neighbors on New Year’s Day continued in Albany. Sometime in the early 1800s, probably between 1809 and 1823, the St. Nicholas tradition was moved to Christmas Day, Dec. 25, combining the annual appearance of St. Nicholas with the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, two totally unrelated events.
In Albany, the feast Day of St. Nicholas, December 6th , continued to be celebrated with a large, probably all male, Sons of St. Nicholas Dinner well into the late 1800s.
The earliest existing written document mentioning Sinter Klaas in America is a reference in 1675 to Maria Van Rensselaer paying f 2-10 to baker Wouter Albertz vanden Uythoff for some Sinterklaasgoet (Santa Claus “stuff,” most likely St. Nicholas cookies and cakes).
Illustration: Early Santa (Sint Nikkolas) with a long stemmed Dutch pipe.
Ellen Apperson Brown says
This is the best explanation about “Santa Claus” I’ve ever read! Nicely done! Isn’t it interesting how how the secular and sacred traditions evolved, and how the different cultures adapted over time?