Did you know Santa Claus is native New Yorker?

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Contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus as we know him today – sleigh riding, gift-giving, rotund and white bearded with his distinctive red suit trimmed with white fur – was not the creation of the Coca Cola Company. Turns out, the illustrious Claus is a native New Yorker.

The Origins of Santa Claus

The original St. Nicholas was a fourth century Greek bishop in Myra, Asia Minor, who was known for his generosity. He was revered in Europe since the Middle Ages and his feast day was — and still is — celebrated in many European countries.

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A 13th-century depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Like most myths, the story of Saint Nicholas evolved and became embellished over the years and – given their fondness for him – it’s hardly surprising to learn that in 1664, the legend of Saint Nicholas travelled across the Atlantic to Dutch colony of New Amsterdam; or as it’s known today, New York City. Unlike the modern depictions of Santa, the Dutch version of Saint Nick rode on a donkey and wore a tall pointy bishop’s hat.

In the same way kids today leave out a glass of milk with some cookies for Santa and his reindeer, Dutch children would fill their clogs with straw and leave them out for the donkey to eat.

In the 200 years that followed, and as a means of preserving their culture and traditions in the face of British settlement, a group of Dutch intellectuals gathered together and called themselves the “Knickerbockers.”

A prominent member of the group was a writer named Washington Irving, who published a book called The Knickerbocker’s History of New York, containing satirical versions of Dutch traditions and stories.

Throughout the book there were several dozen references to a “Sinter Klaas” – an adaptation of “Sint Nikolaas” – accompanied by details of him flying across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little girls and boys.

Washington’s wild, endearing description of the saint very quickly became known to New Yorkers. The English settlers enthusiastically adopted the joyful Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas’ Day, and gradually began to combine them with their own traditions of celebrating Christmas and the new year.

When it comes to pronunciation, it’s easy to see how “Sinter Klaas” could translate to “Santa Claus” when you apply the accent of an English-speaking New Yorker.

The night before Christmas

Clement Clarke Moore was a friend of Washington Irving, and another important contributor to the picture of Santa we have today.

Teresa Chris, author of the book The Story of Santa Claus, wrote that in 1822, Moore sat down to write his children a Christmas poem, having been inspired by Irving’s tales.

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“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…” Illustration from The Night Before Christmas

Clement’s poem, originally titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, soon became known as the classic The Night Before Christmas and was so popular that within a decade it had become canon with regard to the Santa legend.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

The mythology connecting Santa with the Christmas period had been well and truly established by this stage, but there was still some discrepancy around what exactly Santa looked like.

Iconic red suite an toy factory

While Moore was the first to describe the modern Santa, the cartoonist Thomas Nast was the first to depict him as the jolly man we know. From his desk at Harper’s Weekly on Lower Manhattan’s Franklin Square, Nast created the now-iconic image of a red-suited Claus.

In the first half of the 19th century, Santa came in all shapes and sizes, as a myriad of artists tried their hands at bringing him to life. The German-born Nast based his image of Santa on Moore’s descriptions, and his own knowledge of German folklore. Nast codified Santa’s look – giving him a white beard, black boots, and red suit – and captured his lifestyle: It was Nast who first fixed Santa’s home at the North Pole, and filled his toy factory with elves.

It was the New Yorkers’ view of Christmas — complete with Santa Claus, reindeer, stockings and presents — that dominated American celebration after it was declared a federal holiday in 1870. Retail stores picked up Santa Claus as an appropriate salesperson and by the early twentieth century, Santa Claus was a popular fixture enshrined in American commercial life through purchasing and giving gifts. Today, Americans owe everything to the three New York friends — John Pintard, Washington Irving, and Clement Moore — who conspired to domesticate Christmas from a day of drunkenness to a family celebration.

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