The tale of St. Nicholas is an old fable from mid-Europe that was popular in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children, merchants and sailors and the patron saint of Amsterdam and was brought by the Dutch to the new world, which for the Dutch was Nieuw Nederlandt (New Netherland).
Many of the American traditions on Santa Claus originated in the Dutch settlement of New Netherland along the Hudson River between New Amsterdam (New York City) and Oranje (Beverwyck-Albany). The other colonies were English.
The image of Santa, with his round belly and long white beard leaving presents for children in shoes left by the door and stockings hung by the fireplace, was the image of Dutch St. Nicholas. The tradition that Santa was dressed all in fur with high boots, smoked a long-stemmed Dutch pipe and rode in a sleigh with reindeer certainly never originated in either England or America.
Two of Santa’s reindeer “Donder” and “Blitzen” are derivations of Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning” while “Vixen” means “fox” in Dutch. Decorated holly trees were recorded in sixteenth century Netherlands. In Germany, there is a widely held belief that in the 1500s Dutch families decorated evergreen trees with lighted candles on the Feast of St. Nicholas to imitate the stars in the sky. Dutch holiday trees were also decorated with berries and nuts, fruits and decorated cookies. This was all part of the Feast of St. Nicholas celebration on December 6.
In the English colonies, any secular, fun-loving, celebration of Christmas (December 25) was outlawed. The New England Puritans’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out pagan mockery of Christmas and penalized any frivolity. Oliver Cromwell preached against the heathen traditions and joyful expression that he felt desecrated the sacred event of Christmas.
In 1809, author Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym “Dietrich Knickerbocker,” wrote the History of New York. In it, he described St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York and wrote of him arriving on horseback each year on the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, Dec. 6. Irving was not creating anything new, but he was taking an old verbal Dutch tale and spreading the word of St. Nicholas to the English colonies.
Clement Clarke Moore first published his poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (‘Twas the Night before Christmas …) in The Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. This was almost 200 years after the Dutch first began celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas in Rensselaerwyck and Fort Orange. Moore’s poem was probably not authored by him but he was one of the first to write the old popular story down in a published work.
Moore popularized the “jolly old elf” image of Santa and his ability to fly from house to house in his sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. Sometime between 1809 when Washington Irving placed Santa’s visit on the feast day of St. Nicholas and 1823 when Moore wrote “… the night before Christmas…” the two separate holidays were combined.
In the 1830s, R.H. Pease of Albany printed America’s first Christmas cards (actually St. Nicholas cards). The first Christmas cards were merchant’s advertising cards printed in a holiday motif with the merchant’s name and address. They were handed out to customers in the Albany area.
In 1846, the popular English royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert were sketched with their children standing around their family Christmas tree. Albert had brought the celebration from his family tradition in Germany. The sketch appeared in the Illustrated London News. What was done at court immediately became fashionable. Christmas and Christmas trees had officially arrived both in the U.S. and England.
Louisiana was the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday, in 1837. By 1860 fourteen states had done so. By 1865, 31 states and territories officially recognized Christmas. In March, 1868, Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol from the stage of Albany’s Tweedle Hall. In 1870, the U.S. Congress in Washington voted Christmas a federal holiday.
In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast began publishing a series of cartoons in Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s cartoons gave many Americans their first look at Santa. Nast started to make Americans aware of Santa’s bright red suit, bundle of toys and elves. Nast spread the image of rotund, jolly old St. Nick from Moore’s poetic description, which, of course, was based on the Old Dutch image of St. Nicholas. However, as Moore had described him, Nast drew St. Nick as a small character resembling an elf.
In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company published a series of illustrations making Santa a human-size figure and created the modern image of Santa Claus.
If you spend December 25 at church, celebrating the birth of the founder of the Christian religion, you are celebrating the religious holiday. If, on the other hand, you make out your letter to Santa, decorate your house with colored lights, spend weeks buying presents, decorate a “Christmas Tree,” send out cards with a picture of a man dressed in red fur, hang stockings by the chimney with care, listen with your children for the arrival of the sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, open Santa’s presents on Christmas morning … then you are celebrating the Old Dutch Feast of St. Nicholas.
The traditions of the Albany Dutch live on, not only in Albany but all over the U.S.
Illustration: Albany children singings hymns to St. Nicholas on the Eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, courtesy Harper’s Magazine.
This essay first appeared on the New York History Blog on Dec. 22, 2017.