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.
Janet M. Stratton says
My home town was Albany, NY! Thank you for the info!
R.A. DUNLAP says
This is wonderful and so appreciated…lovers of all things Historical…..will love it. My ” pilgrim ” arriving in 1623….is documented as receiving a reprimand from Gov. Bradford for ” saying the WRONG” evening prayer ! Several families apparently had had enough of Gov. Bradford…and moved to Barnstable,MA. HSTORY….is such a blessing……RALF WALLEN / WALLING’S dealings with Bradford…survive..yet my dear husband’s father,born in IN in 1924 has no birth certificate !
Yvonna Both-Brusik says
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.
————Re Christmas tree
Long before Christianity appeared, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes, particularly the doors, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. On December 21 or December 22, the day is the shortest and the night the longest. Traditionally, this time of the year is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during winter — and the evergreen plants served as a reminder that the god would glow again and summer was to be expected. The solstice was celebrated by the Egyptians who filled their homes with green palm rushes in honor of the god Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a crown. In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their druid temples with evergreen boughs which signified everlasting life. Further up north, the Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of light and peace. The ancient Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia thrown in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and, like the Celts, decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Saturnalia was the most important celebration in Roman life. It was a week-long lawless celebration held between 17 and 25 December in which no one could be prosecuted for injuring or killing people, raping, theft — anything usually against the law really. But although a lot of people blew off steam by taking advantage of the lawlessness, Saturnalia could also be a time for kindness. During Saturnalia, many Romans practiced merrymaking and exchange of presents.
Sounds familiar? In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was set at the last day of Saturnalia by the first Christian Romans in power to approach pagans, even though scholars assert Jesus was born nine months later. It was a clever political ploy, some say, which in time transformed Saturnalia from a frat party marathon into a meek celebration of the birth of Christ.
While a lot of ancient cultures used evergreens around Christmas time, historical records suggest that the Christmas tree tradition was started in the 16th century by Germans who decorated fir trees inside their homes. In some Christian cults, Adam and Eve were considered saints, and people celebrated them during Christmas Eve.
During the 16th century, the late Middle Ages, it was not rare to see huge plays being performed in open-air during Adam and Eve day, which told the story of creation. As part of the performance, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit. The clergy banned these practices from the public life, considering them acts of heathenry. So, some collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their homes, in secret.
These evergreens were initially called ‘paradise trees’ and were often accompanied by wooden pyramids made of branches held together by rope. On these pyramids, some families would fasten and light candles, one for each family member. These were the precursors of modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments, along with edibles such as gingerbread and gold covered apples.
Some say the first to light a candle atop a Christmas tree was Martin Luther. Legend has it, late one evening around Christmas time, Luther was walking home through the woods when he was struck by the innocent beauty of starlight shining through fir trees. Wanting to share this experience with his family, Martin Luther cut down a fir tree and took it home. He placed a small candle on the branches to symbolize the Christmas sky.
M William Wykoff says
Thank you for expanding the discussion of Saint Nicholas to ancient Roman Christian culture in Turkey. Amsterdam was probably not the only city which celebrated St. Nicholas in the 16th and 17th centuries. It would be interesting to trace the history through medieval times to cities in different European cultural and linguistic areas. The early history of Christmas in London or Paris could be expected to differ from its celebration in Amsterdam. In the U.S., the role of the Dutch takes on special significance only because of the New Netherland colony. The history of the evergreen Christmas tree in the northern temperate zone surely goes back to pagan celebrations around the winter solstice. There have been many books written on the history of the Christmas tree. Prof. Philip Shelley, who taught German literature at Pennsylvania State University , donated a huge collection of books on the origins of the Christmas tree to the Pattee library at Penn State.
Peter Hess says
Presents, toys, cookies and cakes, decorated trees and houses, are associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6 not the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Dec. 25.
Technically, I don’t think there is a “Christmas” tree until after the two holidays were combined.
Peter Hess says
Remember that Christmas, the religious celebration of Joseph and Mary traveling through Nazareth and having a baby, Jesus Christ, delivered in Bethlehem on the traditional date of Dec. 25, …… and the Feast of St. Nicholas, a jolly soul, dressed all in fur, smoking a long-stemmed Dutch pipe, with 8 reindeer – two named Donder and Blitzen (Dutch for Thunder and Lightning), flying from rooftop to rooftop delivering toys, on Dec. 6, are two completely separate holidays that have nothing to do with each other.
Presents, decorated trees, wreaths, Santa, have nothing to do with Christmas, the birth of Christ.
Sometime between 1809 when Washington Irving identified Santa as appearing on Dec. 6 and 1824 when Clement Clark Moore wrote “Twas the night before CHRISTMAS,” the two holidays were somehow combined.
Martin Luther would not have decorated a CHRISTMAS TREE.
Judith Arnold says
William Bradford was the Governor of Plymouth Colony (the Pilgrims), not of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Pilgrims and Puritans are far from being interchangeable. The Pilgrims were separatists and established their own Congregations while the Puritans sought to rid the English Catholic Church of Vatican and Roman influences (purify). Big difference and important to understand in our history.
M Wm Wykoff says
Peter Hess did not mention Black Pieter. Just wondering why this omission.
E Rofes says
The character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman. So way after the founding of New Amsterdam.