Santa Claus, an immigrant of Greek and Dutch origin, has done very well in the Big Apple. New York City writers and cartoonists created the familiar figure we have today. Originally, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Amsterdam, the Netherlands brought his gifts to good children and left a lump of coal to bad children on December 6. The good saint had his origins in the eastern Mediterranean where he helped furnish dowries for poor women to get married. In 1625, the Dutch brought their Christmas traditions to New Amsterdam when they founded their settlement at the tip of Manhattan Island.
In 1810, Samuel Pintard, of an old English family, repackaged Christmas as a family day celebration in place of the public drunken celebrations of New Year. His friend Washington Irving in Gramercy Park described the gift giving qualities of the elf, renamed Santa Claus, in Knickerbocker's History of New York. St. Nicholas parked his horse-drawn wagon on the rooftops and slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. Irving's Sketchbook (1819) helped to popularize the holiday as a family celebration and get-together.
Clement Clarke Moore of Chelsea was a professor of theology and Hebrew and a biblical scholar at the General Seminary in Chelsea. All of his scholarly books remain in print but they did not bring him lasting fame except for a poem he wrote for his children that he shared with his friends and family. His poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, written in 1822 opens, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." He described Santa's sleight being pulled by eight reindeer and gave them their names. Moore declared Santa arrived on Christmas Eve, December 24. It has been a classic since its first appearance in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. In 1837 Clement Clarke Moore, a biblical scholar in New York City, allowed his name to be attached as author and, in 1844, he included the piece in his own book, Poems. Moore explained that he had written the poem on the Christmas eve of 1823.
From 1863 to 1886, Thomas Nast of Harlem drew the cartoons in Harper's Weekly that give us the present image of Santa Claus as a jolly and weighty fellow. It was he who suggested that Santa lived at the North Pole, had his toy workshop there, and made up lists of children that had been naughty and nice.
Virginia O'Hanlon, a young girl, wrote The New York Sun to ask if there were really a Santa Claus. Her playmates had their doubts. Francis Pharcellus Church, the editor, replied, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Santa is the spirit of Christmas that resides within our hearts. The Sun newspaper building is now a New York City Government building opposite the Tweed Gallery of City Hall Park. His editorial is the most republished one of all American journalism.
In the mid-twentieth century, Madison Avenue advertisers for Coca-Cola made the venerable elf human-size and his suit red.
Finally, the movie Miracle on 34th Street, legally established that Edmund Gwenn portraying Kris Kringle, was "the one and only true Santa Claus," as so recognized by "the U. S. Post Office, an agency of the U.S. Government." This was achieved by his lawyer, played by John Payne. Kris Kringle convinces Natalie Wood playing a young Susan Walker to believe in him and even a disbelieving Maureen O'Hara playing the mother and the arranger of the annual Macy's Christmas Parade. The film was released in July of 1947.
I like to imagine that Santa Claus has retired to an apartment on the Upper East Side and visits his reindeer, also in retirement, at the Central Park Zoo. Thus, as we can see, Santa Claus is a true New Yorker.
Philip E. Schoenberg, PhD, a professional speaker and a licensed New York City tourist guide, is a leading expert on the Big Apple. He has special skill in entertaining and informing people about the Big Apple from its real life stories and folk tales. Dr. Schoenberg received his PhD in history from New York University. He has taught classes on New York City history and has organized field trips and walking tours for City of University of New York Colleges, New York City public schools, the Association of Teachers of Social Studies, and the Queens Historical Society.