Published: 22-08-2012, 12:30

Christmas in New York City: Birth of Santa Claus

Christmas in New York City

Christmas in New York City: Macy’s Parade

Christmas in New York City: Window Displays

Christmas in New York City: Rockefeller Center

Christmas in New York City: Other Decorations

Christmas in New York City: Events

Christmas in New York City: New Year’s Eve

Most researchers agree that Santa Claus bears a suspicious resem-blance to the European gift bringer St. Nicholas. This resemblance is no coincidence, in spite of the fact that Dutch and German immigrants to the American colonies don’t appear to have brought with them much of their St. Nicholas folklore. The early American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) gave St. Nicholas an important position in New York’s Dutch community in his satirical book A History of New York (1809). In 1822 one of Irving’s friends, Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), a languages professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary, used elements of Irving’s portrayal of St. Nicholas in a poem of his own. Entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the poem describes a Christmas gift bringer who rides through the night skies on Christmas Eve in a magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and enters homes via the chimney. Though Moore called the gift bringer "St. Nicholas,” the American public soon dubbed the pot-bellied, pipe-smoking man "Santa Claus.” Moore’s description suggests that St. Nicholas was smaller than life-sized, in fact, an elf. In the latter part of the nineteenth century Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902) published a series of prints depicting Santa Claus. Nast settled on depicting him as a life-sized, portly old man with a long, white beard and a pipe. This description seized the public’s imagination and became part of Santa’s official image.

In 1897 yet another New Yorker, this time an eight-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, helped Americans to settle some of their metaphysical questions concerning the national gift bringer. She wrote a letter to a local newspaper called the New York Sun asking the newspaper editor to tell her whether or not Santa Claus was real. Virginia’s letter and the newspaper’s response have become beloved bits of American Christmas lore. The often-quoted phrase, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” comes from the paper’s editorial response, written by reporter Francis P. Church.