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."
And it's with quite a lot of whimsy, in Knickerbocker's History, that Santa finds his way to New Amsterdam. According to the tale, St. Nicholas adorned the first ship that carried the dutch to Manhattan, and the saint watched over the voyage. He was "equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bow-sprit."
Some of the characteristics we see in Santa today are present in Knickerbocker's Saint Nick. For example, he appears in a dream sequence "riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children," and guiding the Dutch to Bowling Green to build their fort and their city.
And, writes Knickerbocker, to thank him for his invaluable eye for real estate, the citizens of New Amsterdam "instituted 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." See! New York has always known how to grab a good haul!
To go with the stockings, Knickerbocker tells us, New Amsterdam residents "built a fair and goodly chapel within the fort, which they consecrated to [Saint Nicholas]; whereupon he immediately took the town of New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage, and he has even since been, and I devoutly hope will ever be, the tutelar saint of this excellent city."
Well, as we know, Pintard was all over making St. Nick the Patron Saint of the City, but as the 19th century wore on, New Yorkers made Saint Nick even more festive. In fact, Clement Clarke Moore, the scion of one of New York's most illustrious families, penned 'Twas The Night Before Christmas (A Visit from Saint Nicholas), first published December 23, 1823, and in the process singled-handedly produced the modern Santa Claus.
So, where was santa as we know him born? In Chelsea. The Clarke family owned land from 19th-24th streets and from 8th to 10th avenues, where they built an estate called Chelsea. Benjamin Moore, Clement's father, assisted in officiating George Washington's Inauguration, read last rites to Alexander Hamilton, became rector of Trinity Church, Bishop of New York, and President of Columbia University.
Clement Clarke Moore was no slouch himself. He was a professor proficient in French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew; played the violin and the organ, wrote poetry and "had a flare for architecture." But, he reached his widest acclaim as the man who created the modern Santa Claus.
The Night Before Christmas has been called "the greatest piece of genre word painting in the English language," because it set the standard for the Jolly Saint Nick we know. The poem marks the first time that Santa is described as riding a sleigh (instead of a wagon, like he does in Knickerbocker's History) or having "a round belly...like a bowlful of jelly." Today's Claus, "cubby and plump, a right jolly old elf," debuted here.
The poem itself, written in Chelsea, was first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. But in 1829, the editor of the Sentinel revealed that the author belonged "by birth and residence to the City of New York, and that he is a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and writer than many of more nosy pretensions."
The same can be said of Santa himself.