For St. Nicholas Day: How New York Gave Us Santa Claus, and Other Christmas Origin Story Tidbits

Now, now, don’t get your snow-pants in a bunch. Headlines exist so that people will read articles. Nonetheless, surely you know that Christmas is a holiday that draws from many traditions from many lands, many or most of them pre-Christian. Complaints that the “meaning of Christmas is getting lost” have it literally backwards. No one knows what day Jesus’s birthday fell on! Existing Pagan holidays were Christianized in the Middle Ages in order to harness their power rather than abolish them (as leaders of church and state attempted to do many times with very poor results.)

But today is St. Nicholas Day, an appropriate day I think for a post I’ve long wanted to do on the evolution of Christmas and Santa Claus. This is not a religious blog per se, but I have treated of major Catholic feast days and Pagan holidays for a crucial reason: you can draw a connecting line betwixt holidays, festivals, and theatricals. So they are very naturally of interest to us here. Hence we have done posts on St. Bartholomew’s Day and St. Andrew’s Day, Carnival and Mardi Gras, the Feast of Fools, and April Fool’s Day, as well as May Day. Naturally we have frequent occasion to talk about St. Patrick’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day and All Hallows Eve (though usually as an excuse to celebrate the Irish and romantic love and Halloween ghosts; I’ve yet to explore the histories of the holidays themselves). We have chiefly talked about Summer Solstice in terms of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade; we’ll add to that, no doubt. I’ll like to do something on St. John’s Eve, as well, for it has come to have an association with Voodoo that fires the imagination.

The journey we’re going to take is selective. The world is full of winter celebrations and different Christmas traditions. We have (not arbitrarily) chosen the ones that inform the dominant one now celebrated in America.

The winter solstice was celebrated in the British isles for millennia, before even the coming of the Celts. The Celtic speakers brought their own Pagan gods and traditions. The winter solstice was not one of their top four seasonal celebrations, but it was one of the top eight of the annual calendar. When the Romans ruled Britain 43-410 AD, they brought with them Saturnalia, which celebrated the agricultural God Saturn. It took place every December, and involved a holiday from work, feasting, drinking, singing and general merrymaking, as well as decorations. The Celts maintained their own religious customs during this time, but the official nature of this holiday must certainly have influenced the culture.

When the Romans left, the Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Norsemen) came in waves, bringing the celebration of Yule, a December festival honoring the God Odin, also known as Woden, Jól (Yule), Jólfaðr, and Jólnir. A key day during the festival was Modraniht, or Mother’s Night, which takes place on what we now know as Christmas Eve. Nobody knows the exact date of Christ’s birth, but it seems more than natural to assign a night associated with maternity to commemoration of the Virgin Mary’s labor ordeal. But that came later. The Pagan celebrations included much that is still with us, such as the decorating of trees, wreaths, garlands, and Yule logs. It is has also been speculated that the bearded figure of Odin influenced later conceptions of the various Christmas personifications (Santa Claus and his antecedents). Elves and reindeer feature in Norse mythology, as does a story element called the Wild Hunt, a kind of ghostly chase through the sky, that may have evolved into the idea of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh. The Pagan holiday of Yule was very much associated with feasting and caroling, but not the giving of gifts. That idea had another source.

Ironically, both of the waves of Pagan influence, the Roman and the Germanic, occurred after the time of Christ. The Germanic wave also took place after the life of St. Nicholas (circa 270-343). It is St. Nicholas who is associated with the giving of anonymous gifts in the night. Nicholas was ethnically Greek, and born in Asia Minor during the time of Roman domination. He was an important bishop, whose travels took him to the Holy Lands, and is associated with many miracles and acts of generosity. Centuries after his death, thieves from Bari, Italy stole of his remains and they have remained there (on the heel of the boot, across the Adriatic from Albania) ever since. The Feast Day of St. Nicholas (December 6) is still celebrated as its own holiday in many parts of the world, as remains the case with many Saints Days. In most Christian countries it was eventually absorbed into the Christmas season, which was officially established as December 25 in 336 A.D.. (The complicated theological basis being that was nine moths later than his purported March 25 inception, the same day as his ostensible death, as was then believed). Martin Luther (1483-1546) is said to have moved the custom of gift giving to December 24/25 as a way of shifting the emphasis of the celebration to Christ rather than a Catholic Saint, during the Reformation.

Christianization came to Britain in the 600s, though old Pagan beliefs remained. And of course the Church of Rome inherited its own Roman Pagan customs and traditions. By 1100 or so, Christmas was beginning to infiltrate the Pagan winter holidays that had long existed in Britain. Over the centuries, personifications of the holiday began to emerge, not unlike the Lord of Misrule, with names like the Christmas Lord, Sir Christmas, Captain Christmas, Prince Christmas, and the one that stuck: Father Christmas. The native British idea of Father Christmas has aspects that are Santa Claus-like but not precisely. The best way to imagine him is “The Ghost of Christmas Present” from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol — ruddy faced, jolly, bearded, and adorned with a crown of laurels. He was more associated with the color green than the red suit with white trim we now picture him in. Like Bacchus and Shakespeare’s Falstaff, he is all about the flowing bowl and merrymaking. He was represented in mummery plays and masques and pageants in the Middle Ages and Renaissance — hence our interest in him as a theatrical phenomenon.

Naturally the Puritans detested this sort of thing and forbade it. This Puritan vs Pagan conflict was a huge part of the first chapter of my book No Applause, btw so it shouldn’t strike anyone as coming from out of the blue that I address this here. In Puritan New England, Christmas was not only not celebrated but basically illegal for a very long time. But New York was originally a DUTCH colony, New Amsterdam. The Dutch celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas. For them, the name of the Saint became corrupted to “Sinterklaas”. He still wears his bishop’s gear in their original tradition, with a mitre, and vestments, the staff and so forth, though that didn’t survive the transplantation to America. Nor thankfully did the racist element of “Black Peter”, though you can find relevant phenomena in the Mummer’s Parade and South Africa’s Kaapse Klopse. The British took the colony over in 1664, but the Dutch remained influential on the region well into modern times. Our two Roosevelt Presidents were New York Dutchmen.

New York is a melting pot, and it was in a merging of the British and Dutch traditions (which, as we saw, already contained elements of pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Greek and — indirectly — Hebrew culture) that we arrive at the modern conception of Santa Claus. I’ve written about this crucial phase in several previous posts and articles. Early New York civic leader John Pintard, of Huguenot stock, celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and as I wrote here, was a big proponent of the Saint’s adoption by the new nation of America. His friend the writer Washington Irving included a description of the Christmas elf in his 1809 Knickerbocker History which seemed to merge both the English and Dutch traditions. As does, the influential 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” a.k.a.”The Night Before Christmas”, which I wrote about at length in this article, with an ancillary post here. The poem turns 200 years old next year — I vow to you now that I will celebrate THAT in a big way!

German-American New York newspaper illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was largely responsible for designing the “look” of the modern Santa Claus (see top of post), further refined by Swedish-American commercial illustrator Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) in a series of 1931 advertising illustrations for Coca Cola. The 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, with its New York City setting further cements the traditional connection between the mythical gift-giving figure and this very commercial, department store ridden town.

L. Frank Baum, creator of the Oz series of children’s books had the temerity to write the 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which dared to be wildly non-canonical in its imaginings.

Go here for my post on the Rankin-Bass holiday specials, which tell more familiar Santa Claus origin stories, as well as Baum’s.

Go here for my post on Santa Claus’s Punch and Judy (1948).

Go here for my post on five other odd and dark Christmas specials.

Go here for an account of the 2016 reading of my own Christmas show Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, starring Glen Heroy as Santa Claus. Want to hire Glen Heroy to be your Santa? Go here.

Read over two dozen Christmas related Travalanche posts here.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Cool Yule to all the readers of Travalanche!