Caution: Santa spoilers ahead!
Anyone who knows about Jolly Old St. Nick will tell you that he and Mrs. Claus’s lifelong home is at the North Pole…and we’re here to tell you otherwise! Sorry, friends. The Santa you know and love today is actually from New York City! Or at least the image of Santa that has become commonplace today was invented by a few prominent 19th-century New Yorkers: Clement Clarke Moore, Washington Irving, and Thomas Nast.
Of course, some notion of Santa existed before the 19th century. Our Christmas elf is based on the real historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra (or Bari), a man who died on December 6, 343 CE, in modern day Turkey. He was said to have performed many good deeds and miracles in his life. One good deed was secretly giving bags of gold to a family whose three daughters needed dowries to be saved from a life of poverty, and one miracle was a ghastly tale of Nicholas resurrecting three murdered children. Therein lie the origins of associating St. Nick with gift giving and kindness to kids.
Today, Nicholas is revered in the Catholic faith as the patron saint—kind of like a protector—of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. St. Nick is particularly celebrated in the Netherlands, where a holiday called Sinterklaas happens annually on December 5 or 6. Worldwide, many Catholics celebrate St. Nick’s Feast Day on December 6—the day he died.
The Dutch brought their devotion to St. Nicholas with them to the places they colonized, including New Amsterdam. New Yorkers of Dutch and other heritages grew up in the late 17th and early 18th centuries celebrating some form of Sinterklaas, or seeing others do so. Many revolutionary-minded New Yorkers developed an interest in Dutch culture because of a distaste for the British after the U.S. gained its independence.
One prominent New Yorker, Washington Irving, wrote a satirical history of Dutch New York under the pen name Deidrich Knickerbocker. He mingled historical facts with his own imagination, and wrote that an image of St. Nicholas had not only been carved into the masthead of the ship that brought Dutch colonists to new Netherlands, but that St. Nicholas had appeared in a dream to those colonists and helped them decide where to set up the colony of New Amsterdam. Fellow revolutionary and elite New Yorker, John Pintard—founder of the New-York Historical Society!—also loved the idea of closely associating St. Nicholas with New York City. (He was especially fond of Sinterklaas, though he was not of Dutch descent.) Pintard tried to get St. Nicholas recognized as the patron saint of New York. This never truly caught on, but Pintard did organize a feast day celebration for the members of the New-York Historical Society in 1810—and Washington Irving attended.
Washington Irving had described St. Nicholas as having a “broad hat” and “long pipe,” and he was the first to reference St. Nick flying on a vehicle carrying toys for children, though he referred to a “wagon” not a sleigh. Irving was also the first to mention a tradition of “… that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.”
But it was another prominent New Yorker, Clement Clark Moore, who would elaborate and change Santa from an ancient bishop to the fanciful creature we know today. Author Moore wrote a poem about St. Nick to please his six children in 1822. By then, Sinterklaas traditions were blending with Christmas, and St. Nick was blending with the English folk legend of Father Christmas. In his poem, Moore chose to link this “Santa Claus” character to Christmas, not Sinterklaas. Moore’s kids loved his poem, and he later anonymously published it in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823 with the title “Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas.” His identity as the author was later revealed, and today the poem is often called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—which is actually the poem’s first line, not its title.
This poem was the first to describe many essential elements of modern-day Santa Claus—a “jolly old elf” who was chubby and had a long white beard. The poem also introduced the idea that Santa had a sleigh (which Moore himself also had and rode in around his Chelsea neighborhood!) Moore even enumerated and named Santa’s eight reindeer, though some of those names have changed with time. As you can see from the poem when it was first published, Donner was originally named “Dunder” and Blitzen was “Blixem.” As you can imagine, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” became hugely popular, as it still is today. Funny enough, Moore was also a member of the New-York Historical Society, and the Museum actually has the desk at which he penned the famous poem, as well as a handwritten copy he made of it in 1862. Take a look!
Finally, one more New Yorker changed the way we see Santa by actually drawing images inspired by Moore’s and Irving’s descriptions. That man was famed 19th-century illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work was so popular, he eventually became known as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon.” Nast began drawing Santa in January 1863, when he created this cartoon for Harper’s Weekly showing Santa Claus bringing gifts to Union soldiers, who look like they could use a pick me up! The war was dragging on unexpectedly at that time.
In this image, you’ll notice the sleigh, the gifts, the bearded elf in this image—but not the famous red suit or other modern details. Nast continued to draw Santa over the years, trying on a few other looks for Santa, including the image of him as an extremely tiny, pajama-wearing elf who makes all his own toys in this book Santa and His Works from 1870. In fact, many credit Nast with the idea of Santa having a toy workshop.
So now you know: Not only is Santa Claus as you know him a New Yorker, he was actually kind of invented at the New-York Historical Society! No need to thank us, just come visit sometime this holiday season.
Written by Rachel Walman,
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum