C.S.I.: North Pole

Who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas”? Who invented Santa Claus?

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Sometimes all a story needs for it to be spread widely is an authoritative manner behind its delivery. Like all characters in great folklore, the character of Santa Claus “feels” like something ancient, a figure who has always been around, and not something that a human being could have conceived of merely to sell, well, anything.

What we know about the jolly old elf, including that very phrase, mostly comes from Old New York of the beginning of the 19th Century. New York City in the early 1800s was already the melting pot it remains to this day, but mostly it was two cultures that were mixing together then: English and Dutch. During the period of Dutch dominance, in commerce and population, the city was called New Amsterdam, and many place names still in use in the city and parts north to Albany are Dutch in origin (Spuyten Duyvil or Catskill Mountains, for example).

Three figures from history, or make it four, are to be blamed or credited with things like Santa’s sled, the number of reindeer he employs, even the name Santa Claus. These people are also why Santa travels on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, which is when most of the other Santas in the countries of Europe travel to deliver gifts. (In the Netherlands the St. Nicholas character is called Sinterklaas.)

The least known of these figures is a man named John Pintard, a merchant who lost and regained his fortune several times in his long life, 1759–1844. In their huge book, Gotham, Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace neglect to even include Pintard in their index, but he is certainly in the book’s pages:

For 150-odd years, probably since the English conquest, the favorite winter holiday of the city’s propertied classes was New Year’s Day (as distinct from the night before, which was an occasion for revelry and mischief among common folk). Families exchanged gifts … . Sadly, according to John Pintard, the city’s physical expansion after 1800 rendered this “joyous older fashion” so impratical that it was rapidly dying out.

Pintard suggested that St. Nicholas Day, December 6, would be a splendid holiday of gift-giving and family visits for the upper classes in New York City. His idea did not take off, but what he and his friend Washington Irving came up with did.

Washington Irving (1783–1859) was America’s first celebrity author, a writer who is read less and less nowadays but whose characters remain firmly in the American cultural memory. He created Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, for example. And Santa Claus.

Irving was the first to use the word “Gotham” as a nickname for his beloved New York City—it means “Goat Town,” and he did not come up with it as a compliment for his beloved New York City. But that is one of Irving’s great legacies: He often makes the characters and phrases he uses in his stories sound like he is merely copying down old traditions and then re-introducing them to the population, when he is fact created them himself.

Irving’s first great success as a writer came in 1809 with the publication of A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. The fake author’s name was a part of the title, which was the giveaway that this was a work of comic fiction; so was the name “Knickerbocker” itself: knicker is Dutch for “to nod over” and bocken is “books.” Old Diedrich, a scholar who nodded over books, told some tall tales in a completely poker-faced manner.

And Washington Irving created a bestseller for himself with an ad campaign before such a thing existed: He placed notices in the local newspapers that requested help from readers to locate a missing man, D. Knickerbocker, a scholar. Later notices appeared that reported he had been located and that he had been doing research. A little later came the announcement that a book by the old scholar had been found among his things and would soon be … well, you get the idea. The book sold out printing after printing when it it was published. Irving’s fake news and fake scholarship made Knickerbocker’s stories sound like stories a grandparent would say that they remember hearing their grandparents tell, which was Irving’s humorous intent.

The book was published on November 28, 1809, one week before St. Nicholas Day. This was no coincidence, as Irving and Pintard were friends. In Knickerbocker’s fake (but is it?) history book, St. Nicholas is described as having been the patron saint of old New Amsterdam, that he is a “jolly old Dutchman” who parks his wagon on rooftops and drops down chimneys with gifts on the eve of his feast day. His name in old New Amsterdam, according to Knickerbocker, was “Sancte Claus.” All of this came from Irving’s imagination and pen and Pintard’s use of his friend’s writing skill to create a new holiday. St. Nicholas’s feast day, while a real thing, was never a major holiday, neither in old Amsterdam nor in New Amsterdam.

Their idea fell flat. December 6 remained just another day of the week. But Sancte Claus? Within a decade of his creation, educational materials were published in New York City that decried “the foolish story” and urged parents to not tell it to their children. Irving’s story of Sancte Claus had quickly achieved that most singular mark of American success: a crowd that demanded the book be banned.

Irving’s American version of Santa Claus was instantly very popular, perhaps Irving’s most lasting creation.

Over the next couple of decades, Christmas started to take hold as a popular gift-giving holiday in America. But in a Protestant majority nation, Christmas presented a problem: it was considered a Catholic—and therefore, wrong—thing to celebrate. Further, a problem of public rowdiness (people visiting friends’ houses, toasting one another, then moving the party to the next friend’s house and then more toasts …) was being seen to develop on every December 25 throughout the young nation, but especially in New York.

On December 23, 1823, a poem appeared in the Troy Sentinal. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was its title, and in it, St. Nicholas—described as a “right jolly old elf” for the first time in print—is discovered one night as he delivers presents from a sleigh driven by eight reindeer, whose names are given for the first time; rather than his feast day or eve of his feast day, he is delivering gifts on Christmas Eve itself for children to find the next morning, Christmas Day. Even Protestants, who were faced with a holiday that was only growing more and more popular year after year, could accept this gift from the poem’s author of the invention of a Christmas Eve “tradition” that did not yet exist in reality but soon would.

No author’s name appeared with the poem, but almost fifteen years later, a scholar and poet named Clement Clarke Moore was credited, and he happily accepted the credit and started to include the poem in collections of his writings. Beginning in 1899, however, the Livingston family has presented family histories that claim that one of their own, Henry Livingston, Jr., of Poughkeepsie, NY, (my home town) is the true author. According to these histories, the poem was one that their ancestor recited to the family long before 1823.

The dispute—was Moore or Livingston the author of what is now a two-century old holiday classic—is revived once a year on this date, especially in the last two decades, with forensic linguists like Donald Foster of Vassar College supporting the Livingston claim.

Moore was personal friends with both Pintard and Irving, so he has that fact in his favor. Livingston was a published poet, and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” resembles his other works, so he has that in his favor. (The Poetry Foundation, publisher of “Poetry,” gives Livingstone as the author on the poem’s page: “A Visit.”)

Whoever wrote it, it was published 193 years ago today, and its appearance put the finishing touch on a legend that feels like it has always been here.

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