News Articles

Characters of New York satirist helped create American tradition

Dour St Nicholas became jolly Santa

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

The jolly old Santa Claus character first came to the attention of Americans following the release of the book "Knickerbocker's History of New York," in which the then still obscure author Washington Irving (under his pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker) gleefully satirized the early Dutch settlers of New York and their traditions. The book which became a classic, also poked fun at Saint Nicholas. Irving’s humorous reinterpretation of the Dutch patron saint heralded the start of a new legend, which since has grown to global proportions.

Born in 1783, Washington Irving was raised on a street in New York which today belongs to the city’s financial district, as the youngest son in a merchant family. In "Knickerbocker's History of New York," Irving, then in his mid 20s, distinguished himself as a master of satire and sentiment.

Nowhere are the roots of Christmas more apparent than in Irving's tales of Oloffe the dreamer. Over several episodes in the life of the Dutch community, Irving focuses on Oloffe, a mixture of prophet and land speculator, who dreams one night that "the good St. Nicholas comes riding over the tops of the trees in a wagon bringing his yearly presents to children." Irving's Nicholas smokes a pipe and places gifts in the stockings that children have hung by the chimney.

Irving’s character received another make-over a decade later, when a Troy, NY, newspaper published the unforgettable children's poem that begins "'Twas the night before Christmas," which turned Santa's wagon into a sleigh and added reindeer.

When Irving’s book was published, New Year's Day was New York's one and only holiday of the winter. In converting St. Nicholas into Christmas holiday fun, Irving was joined by John Pintard, a founder of the New York Historical Society, who publicized an engraved picture of a rather dour St. Nicholas, seeking to anoint the Saint as the symbol of New York City. It is not known if Pintard knew that numerous Dutch towns and villages already honoured in the bishop one way or another.

Washington Irving, who had settled abroad soon after Knickerbocker's History of New York was published, by 1820 had come up with another hit. This time it was "The Sketch Book," in which his enduringly popular stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" were introduced. Sandwiched between these American classics are several Christmas tales in which Irving succeeded to propel the celebration of Christmas beyond the relatively modest Dutch model.

The New York author profoundly influenced the American celebration of Christmas. The melding of his jolly St. Nick character with an English commemoration of a wintry nostalgic celebration gave rise to a new cultural legacy. Within a decade of the publication of "Sketch Book," New Yorkers were greeting each other with Christmas wishes, and stores on Broadway extended their hours to accommodate shoppers.

The frenzied commercialization of Christmas may never have happened if Irving had not so persistently satirized the colonial Dutch settlers and their traditions.