In the popular retelling of the story of our American Santa Claus, it is easy to suggest that the contemporary image sprang almost completely from the pen of Clement C. Moore and the lines of a poem fondly remembered as “The Night Before Christmas.” In truth, the American story of Santa Claus was the product of a circle of at least four friends, each working independently and all working together.
When the Protestant Reformation swept across western Europe in the 17th century it impacted both the celebration of Christmas and the legend of Saint Nicholas. Martin Luther argued that Nicholas’s Day should be abolished because it was full of “childishness and falsehood”. Calvinist reformers in Scotland, Switzerland and Amsterdam banned Christmas celebrations and the exchanging of gifts on St. Nicholas Day, as did Puritan reformers in England. The fathers of Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut all forbade the observance of Christmas, often banning the celebration as a “wanton Bacchanalian feast.” As Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony wrote in 1621, he was not so much bothered by people celebrating the holiday as he was that they were out “gambling and reveling in the streets.”
Most of those who resisted the Puritan Reformation in New England were actually on the fringes of culture. The poor, those in the lower classes and the mariners and fishermen were among the least reformed and most likely to ignore or resist more traditional New England behaviors. The result was that many of these celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures — eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing and gambling.
And these excesses of celebration did not go unnoticed. Puritan preacher Cotton Mather observed that what frustrated him was not that people celebrated Christmas, but that they did so in a drunken revelry and with lascivious behavior. In the mid-1700’s James Franklin’s almanac cautioned that men should refrain from excessive drinking during Christmas; Benjamin Franklin wrote a verse in Poor Richard’s Almanac supporting moderation, sobriety and self-control when celebrating the holiday; Nathaniel Ames’s almanacs admonished against excess during the Christmas season; and a New York newspaper complained in 1722 about the absence of decency, temperance and sobriety during the season, arguing that too much time was spent in gaming, drunkenness, quarreling and swearing.
To make matters worse, New York’s population was exploding. As late as 1790 New York City was still a small town of 33,000 people clustered around the southern tip of Manhattan Island, well to the south of what are now the numbered streets. To the north was open country and large estates with graceful farmhouses linked together by dirt lanes. By 1830 the population had risen to 200,000 and by 1835 it was 270,000. The city’s explosive population included a rapid increase in poverty, vagrancy and homelessness, and as late as the 1820’s many people saw the Christmas season, and New Year’s, as an occasion for indulgence, mirth and licentious behavior, with nights of noisy revelry, openhanded eating, serious drinking, and boisterous conviviality that often grew to riotous and disorderly levels, especially in large cities like New York and Philadelphia.
These excesses constituted a kind of social threat that respectable New Yorkers did not ignore or take lightly. The customary holiday license, when combined with seasonal unemployment, made Christmas a noisy, drunken time in the eyes of the upper class who saw an absence of decency, moderation and sobriety in the celebrating.
And from within the ranks of the New York gentry, sometimes called the “Knickerbockers”, a special circle of friends that included Washington Irving, John Pintard, Clement C. Moore and James K. Paulding began to promote a new kind of Christmas celebration with a new central figure: Santa Claus.
For the most part, Knickerbockers were of British descent, not Dutch. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, were part of the wealthy old aristrocracy of the city, were politically conservative, saw themselves as part of a patrician class and were somewhat fearful of the growing working class. The Knickerbocker group was also a sort of literary circle that, during the second and third decades of the 1800’s, was responsible for publishing much of American literature and included among its members James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant.
There were other important links between Irving, Pintard, Moore and Paulding. John Pintard and Clement Moore, for example, worked together on the establishment of the General Theological Seminary, and Pintard helped to establish the New York Historical Society, where Irving was extended a membership. James Paulding was Washington Irving’s brother-in-law and together with William Irving (Washington’s brother) the three collaborated on the Salmagundi papers. Both Irving and Pintard held a fondness for history, ceremonies, rituals and traditions and Irving, Paulding and Moore were accomplished and respected writers of their day.
As we shall see, the development of the legend of Santa Claus in America was not the product of one Clement C. Moore, as is often thought. Rather, it was almost a group effort born of the interaction and literary borrowing that took place between Irving, Pintard, Moore and Paulding — the circle of friends.
It probably began with Washington Irving. Born in 1783, he was the eleventh child of a prosperous New York merchant. He studied law for six years and was finally admitted to the bar. It was a choice of profession made mostly because he saw the law as a life of genteel associations, with no great demands on his time or effort, and without the risks of business.
But writing was his love. Before beginning his writing career Washington Irving toured Europe from 1804 to 1806 absorbing the legends, myths and history that make up the heritage of the Old World. He had an enthusiasm for history, especially legends, and wherever he traveled he absorbed local tales, later retelling them colored by his own fancy. A new kind of American fiction sprang from his pen that united his passion for literature, language, folklore, local customs, the picturesque and the supernatural with subtle humor.
For our purposes, his most important work was fully titled: The Humerous History of New York From theBeginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published in 1809, and authored under the fictitious name of Diedrich Knickerbocker. To the youthful Irving, the old families of New York society were taking themselves too seriously, holding a stiff, public pride in their age and aristocratic past. And so The History was a chance to poke some good humored fun at the expense of some of the finest old names in the city. But it was also here that Irving introduced old Saint Nicholas and proposed that he be considered “the tutelar saint of this ancient city” of New York. More than that, it is here that Irving introduced Nicholas’s now famous pipe and the smoke that encircled his head, the significant look and the laying of his finger beside his nose, and his ability to fly over the roofs of houses and come down the chimney. Even two of the reindeer names, “Dunder and Blixum”, are to be found in Irving’s work.
Irving’s interest in the Saint Nicholas character continued for many years and in 1835 he would be primarily responsible for founding the Saint Nicholas Society of New York City. This would be the same organization to which James K. Paulding would dedicate his own work, The Book of Saint Nicholas.
The second effort to introduce Saint Nicholas to America emerged from colonial interest in other traditional European saints. Scots immigrants, for example, established the Saint Andrew’s Society in Boston in 1657, Charleston in 1729, Philadelphia in 1749, Savannah in 1750 and New York in 1756. The Irish founded Saint Patrick’s Day in New York in 1736, the Welsh Saint David’s Day in 1774 and the British Saint George’s Day in 1775.
In reaction, the Son’s of Liberty in Philadelphia somewhat humorously put forth their own Saint Tammany in 1772. Tammany, of course, was a Delaware Indian and not a recognized Christian saint. But that didn’t stop Samuel Luther Mitchell from arguing, in the Life, Exploits, and Precepts of Tammany, the Famous Indian Chief: “Avaunt then ye boasters! Cease too your prating about St. Patrick, St. George, and St. Louis, and be silent concerning your St. Andrew and St. David. Tammany, though no Saint, was, you see, as valorous, intrepid and heroic as the best of them.”
And this is where John Pintard came into the picture. Pintard was a prominent New York City burgher, a merchant, civic leader, member of the New York Common Council and the New York State Assembly. A propertied man, he was drawn to ceremonies, rituals and traditions, played a significant role in the establishment of Washington’s Birthday, the Fourth of July and even Columbus Day as national holidays and regularly expressed nostalgia for what he called the “old customs” and “ancient usages” of New York. He is credited with founding the Marine Society, the first New York insurance company, the first savings bank, the American Bible Society, and, together with Clement Moore, the General Theological Seminary. He was also editor and publisher of the Daily Advertiser.
Pintard had founded the New Jersey Society of the Sons of Saint Tammany, as well as a chapter in New York. And when he became frustrated in his role with those groups he left in order to help found the New York Historical Society in 1804. It was the same organization to which Washington Irving would later be extended membership and which Irving satirized in The History. Thinking that this new organization would benefit by having a patron saint, Pintard suggested Nicholas. To that end, on December 6, 1810, the New York Historical Society inaugurated the first of its annual dinners in honor of the saint (still held to this day each December 6th).
At that first dinner Pintard distributed a broadside which he had had engraved for the occasion by Alexander Anderson (the “Father of American Wood Engraving”). It showed Saint Nicholas bearded, bald and carrying a switch; a figure of authority and dignity, dressed in ecclesiastical robes and with a bishop’s scepter, who had come to reward and/or punish children. It is the earliest known pictorial representation of Saint Nicholas in American and it included a verse that used the now popular name for our American gift-giver: “Sancte Claus, goed heylig [holy] man!” Two weeks later a longer, more elaborate, version of Pintard’s poem appeared in a New York newspaper written in anapestic tetrameter, the exact meter later used by Clement C. Moore in his poem about the “Night Before Christmas.” Pintard did not particularly associate the visit of Saint Nicholas with Christmas, even after the appearance of Moore’s poem. In fact, between 1810 and 1830 he fluctuated between December 6th, January 1st, and December 25th in terms of the date of Nicholas’s arrival.
The third Knickerbocker to become a proponent of Saint Nicholas was James K. Paulding. Like his brother-in-law Washington Irving, Paulding had actively collaborated on the Salmagundi papers as well as being a popular author in his own right. In fact, the wide circulation of his own fiction drew the highest advance royalties of the day. His influence extended into the political arena as well and he later served as Secretary of the Navy under VanBuren.
Paulding’s interest in Saint Nicholas and Christmas was extensive. In 1826 he toasted Saint Nicholas on his feast day in the New Mirror For Travelers, and in 1836 he published The Book of Saint Nicholas, Translated From The Original Dutch Of Dominie Nicholaus Aegidius Oudenarde. Dedicated to the Saint Nicholas Society of New York the book is a “biography” of Saint Nicholas with material straight out of the Salmagundi workshop.
Paulding set Nicholas’s visit on New Year’s Day, accounting for the choice by Nicholas’s confusion over the new style calendar, and put him in the same horse and wagon transportation that had appeared in Irving’s work. He described Nicholas as “a little rascal with a three-cornered cocked hat, decked with old gold lace, a blue Dutch sort of short pea jacket, red waistcoat, breeks of the same colour, yellow stockings, and honest thick-soled shoes, ornamented with a pair of skates.” To Paulding, Nicholas was “the poor man’s saint” and in one episode of the story he has the saint descend on the “noisy splutterkins” and “roistering rogues” of the city to rebuke them for their riotousness: “Are you not ashamed of yourselves . . . to set such a bad example to the neighbourhood, by carousing at this time of the morning.?”
But it remained for another Knickerbocker, Clement C. Moore, to give the most memorable and popular focus to the story of Santa Claus. Clement was born in 1779 of Dutch Walloon ancestry and raised to be an old-style country gentleman of leisure. He lived on one of the estates in the open country north of Manhattan. Known as Chelsea, the estate was 94 acres of land with a four-story brick mansion overlooking the Hudson River. It had been built by his grandfather and deeded to Clement by his father, the Right Reverand Benjamin Moore, Episcopal bishop of the diocese of New York for thirty-five years and president of Columbia College. According to Pintard, who knew Moore well, but acknowledge him as his social superior, “for he is wealthy,” the Moore estate was worth $500,000. Moore was professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General (Anglican) Theological Seminary, but he was also a violinist and an organist, a sometime architect and a self-appointed pamphleteer against Jefferson’s skepticism.
Trouble was, the city was growing, and while the rigid grid of streets had not then reached Chelsea, the shanties of Greenwich Village to the south were giving way to the city. And the city council had plans to grid Chelsea as well. Moore, a romantic, was not happy about the criss-crossing of the countryside with streets laid out in unforgiving rectangles. Then, late in 1818, Ninth Avenue was actually dug right through the middle of Moore’s estate, after the land had been taken from him by eminent domain. In a futile effort to preserve at least one natural part of the area, and perhaps in retaliation, in 1819 he gave almost the entire Chelsea section of the city to the Episcopal Diocese and, with John Pintard, helped to build the General Theological Seminary.
It’s not entirely clear how Moore came to write “An Account Of The Visit Of Saint Nicholas.” As legend has it, Moore’s handy man (or gardener) was of Dutch ancestry; a heavy set little man named Jan (Patrick in other versions) who had a white beard, twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks. On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1822, Moore helped Jan clear some fresh snow off the paths around the house before leaving by sleigh in the afternoon to travel to Manhatten’s Washington Market to buy the Christmas turkey. The trip was roughly an hour each way.
Upon his return, Moore composed a set of verses for his six daughter, especially seven-year-old Margaret and six-year-old Charity, about the visit of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. And with the verses were images supposedly drawn from the day’s snowfall, the sleigh ride into town and the handyman. Later in life Moore would tell an interviewer that “a portly, rubicund Dutchman” living in the neighborhood of his father’s county seat, Chelsea, was the impetus for his Saint Nicholas.
But there is no doubt that Moore drew his images from elsewhere as well. The idea for a sleigh pulled by reindeer probably came from a popular 1821 New York volume published by William Gilley and entitled: The Children’s Friend. In it Santa rides a sleigh emblazoned with the word “Rewards” and a giant “S” and pulled by a single high-stepping reindeer.
From his old friend Washington Irving, Moore adopted Santa’s pipe, the smoke that “encircled” his head, the “wink of his eye,” the “laying a finger aside of his nose”, the chimney and stockings, and quite possibly the two reindeer names Donder and Blitzen. And from the poem of his friend John Pintard, Moore selected anapestic tetrameter for the meter of his own work.
The structure of “The Visit” appears to replicate that of a seventeenth-century poem about Judgement Day. “The Day of Doom”, written by Massachusetts clergyman Michael Wigglesworth and published in 1622, begins with people sleeping serenely and dreaming of good things to come. Suddenly the calm is shattered by a sound that rouses the sleepers and causes them to leap out of bed and run to the window. There they witness the arrival through the air of an unexpected supernatural visitor, accompanied by other magical creatures. Unlike Moore’s Saint Nicholas, however, this visitor came to judge and separate those who can look forward to eternal happiness from those who cannot.
No matter that he borrowed much from others. Moore was a consummate storyteller, capturing in rhyming verse memorable images that would forever change the traditional story of the annual gift-giver. Gone was the December 6th celebration of Nicholas’s feast day, replaced by “the night before Christmas.” Magical transportation became “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,” each identified by name. Lumps of coal and the threat of switches became a “sleigh full of toys” and the stern slender bishop of Europe evolved into “a right jolly old elf.”
Together, Irving, Pintard, Paulding and Moore did much to introduce a new Santa Claus to America and bring a sense of tradition and gentleness to the Christmas season. But by no means did they solidify the image into a national symbol in just three short decades.
Even though Irving’s work had appeared in 1809, Pintard’s in 1810, Moore’s poem in 1822 and Paulding’s book in 1836, there was no agreement about when Santa Claus arrived. Some said December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas’s feast day. Others said Christmas eve and still others favored New Year’s eve. In fact, a popular joke of the time was that Santa only worked two nights a year, and Moore’s poem was actually published with two separate opening lines; for Christmas the poem began “T’was the night before Christmas”, and for New Years it began “T’was the night before New Year’s”.
Nor was there much agreement about how Santa Claus looked. His image was a tangle of myth, folklore and literary invention ranging from the slender bishop known as Saint Nicholas to the rotund and elfin hero of Moore’s poem.
For example, in 1837 Robert Weir, West Point drawing instructor and friend of Moore’s, produced a painting of a clean shaven elfin character about to leave through the chimney clad in a red cape and with an almost frightening expression on his face. Less than a decade later, in the 1840’s, T.C. Boyd produced a woodcut illustration of a short-bearded Santa Claus with no mustache and dressed in a frock coat, vest and knickers and Ingham, the illustrator, gave him a short beard, pipe, short coat with narrow fur trimming and short breeches known as knickerbockers. In 1845 another woodcut illustration showed a raffish Santa dressed in tricorn hat and knickers. In 1850 the frontispiece to Santa Claus and Jenny Lind showed a clean shaven Santa Claus dressed pretty much as a redcoat complete with boots, spurs, long coat and colonial hat, riding with Jenny Lind above the rooftops on what appears to be a broom with wings.
In the years that followed other illustrations variously portrayed Santa as tall or short, thin or fat, smiling or frowing, as a bishop or Dutch burgher, clad in outfits ranging from carpenter’s apron to buckskins. Clearly the Santa Claus of the day had no consistency in the mind of artists and illustrators. How could it, when some people still saw the gift-giver as a horrifying character, as in the following North Carolina memory of an experience in the early 1850’s: “I can well remember hearing my grandmother tell of a fearful fire-breathing monster which came and breathed through the key-hole on Christmas Eve. He breathed fire on bad children. ‘Once on Christmas Eve I saw him with his big eyes that frightened me almost to death. He came into the room where we children slept and put down a pack which contained toys and a bundle of switches. He went to the most mischievous boy of the family and “haling” him up, gave him an awful beating. He treated the other mischievous boys in the same manner, then divided the toys up among the good children and went away.’”
The circle of friends had done much to introduce a new Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus to the American people and to begin reshaping our perception of the annual gift-giver and the holiday season of which he is a part. It would remain for another to solidify Santa’s visual image.
by Craig Hosterman