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Santa Claus was Born in Chelsea: How Saint Nick became a Native New Yorker

Hi and Happy Holidays everybody! Welcome back to Out of the Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade blog.

Now that Santa has driven his sleigh across the five boroughs, and around the world, I'd like to welcome him back home. Turns out, the illustrious Claus is a native New Yorker. He might live at the North Pole, but the modern Santa Claus, red suited and jolly, is a hometown boy. The Rare Book Division, and the Milstein Division of U.S. Local History and Genealogy, both at the New York Public Library, help tell the story of how St. Nicholas became the patron Saint of New York City, and the most merry man in Manhattan.

This story starts where all great stories do: at the New York Historical Society. John Pintard, who founded the NYHS, had an enormous impact on the city, and on the holiday season. He helped establish public education in New York City; he personally appointed the commissioners of roads and streets who drafted the Commissioners Plan of 1811, which gave New York its grid; and he was a big fan of Saint Nicholas.

Because Pintard was a patriot who served in the Revolution, and was good friends with George Washington, he was interested in New York's Dutch history as a matter of anti-British sentiment. Because Saint Nicholas was revered in the Netherlands as the Patron Saint of Children, Pintard considered him to be a worthy anti-British symbol, and meaningful link to New York's Dutch past. Pintard lobbied to have St. Nick formally declared Patron Saint of New York City, and began to celebrate the festival of Saint Nicholas on December 6, the saint's feast day, at the New York Historical Society in 1810.

Participants at that first festival toasted "Sancte Claus, goed heylig man!," and many New Yorkers, including the writer Washington Irving, got caught up in the festivities surrounding Saint Nick.

In fact, that's how the Knicks got in holiday spirit. Or their namesake, Knickerbockers. A Knickerbocker is defined as "a descendant of the early Dutch settlers of New York; broadly: a native or resident of the city or state of New York —used as a nickname." But who came up with that nickname? Was it the Dutch in New Amsterdam, proudly referring to themselves and their progeny as "genuine Knickerbockers?" Nope. It was Washington Irving, the same man who penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Irving set down quite a few legends in his 1809 satirical tome, Knickerbocker's History of New York, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. The two volume tale tackles the Dutch period (1624-1664). Inspired by Pintard's passion for Saint Nick, Irving makes the saint a star player in his narrative of old New York. The original work claims to represent "the very life and soul of history," but Irving wrote in 1848 that to create the narrative, he reached "back into the regions of doubt and fable," adding "figments of [his] own brain," and "imaginative and whimsical associations," to "the peculiar and racy customs and usages derived from our Dutch progenitors."