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Christmas Was Invented in New York

Justin Fox

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Christmas as we know it today got its start in the pages of Salmagundi, a short-lived early-1800s precursor to Mad magazine and the Onion that was billed as “The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others” but was actually the work of precocious New York literary talent Washington Irving, one of his older brothers and a friend.

At least, that’s one theory, and as a New Yorker I’m all for promoting it.

The Jan. 25, 1808, issue of the magazine opens with an account of “this season of festivity when the gate of time swings open on its hinges, and an honest rosy-faced New-Year comes waddling in, like a jolly fat-sided alderman, loaded with good wishes, good humour and minced pies.” It goes on to describe a time of “cordiality, social merriment and good cheer,” but also of newspaper carriers and other members of the working class aggressively requesting gifts, men forcefully “smacking the lips of all fair ladies” and an overall atmosphere that seemed more ribald than cozy.

This was the winter holiday tradition as it had been conveyed across the Atlantic. “In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam — and to gorge,” University of Massachusetts at Amherst historian Stephen Nissenbaum wrote in “The Battle for Christmas,” an acclaimed 1996 history. Food was ample, particularly meat, which could keep after slaughter in the colder weather; the year’s supply of ale and wine was ready to drink; and there wasn’t much to do on the farm.(1)

The Christian church had gotten in on the winter celebrations in the fourth century AD by declaring Dec. 25 to be Christ’s birthday, but it could never really control them. This remained a time of year for rowdy drunkenness and licentiousness, along with traditions such as misrule (in which a peasant was pronounced lord of the festivities), wassailing (door-to-door begging for food, drink and other gifts that could border on home invasion) and mumming (street theater that involved cross-dressing and disguises). New Year’s Day tended to get more attention than Christmas.

The Protestant Reformation brought differing approaches to the holiday season. Martin Luther embraced the celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25, even though that date wasn’t in the Bible, and tried to give it more religious content. John Calvin, on the other hand, preached on Dec. 25, 1551, that “if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts.” The Puritans who ruled England in the mid-1600s and New England for most of the century were very much Calvinists, and they set out to destroy the holiday outright, suppressing seasonal celebrations and making Dec. 25 a normal working day.

In the 1700s, though, Christmas traditions began to reassert themselves even among Puritans. One interesting result, Nissenbaum reported, was a sharp rise in premarital pregnancies in New England, with almost half the children in some towns born less than seven months after their parents’ marriage, and the largest numbers born in September and October.

In the fast-growing English and American cities of the early 1800s, this seasonal rowdiness began to take on a more menacing tone. The rhythms of agricultural life that made December a time of leisure and plenty were supplanted by industrial schedules that entailed either continued work through the winter or layoffs and deprivation as iced-over rivers halted water-powered factories. Nissenbaum again:

The Christmas season, with its carnival traditions of wassail, misrule, and callithumpian ‘street theater,’ could easily become a vehicle of social protest, an instrument to express powerful ethnic or class resentments.

From the perspective of the urban merchant class, a new, tamer set of seasonal traditions was needed. In January 1808, the three members of that class who wrote Salmagundi offered, most likely without really meaning to, the beginnings of one: “the noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus — of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.”

The St. Nicholas they described was merely a decoration on a bygone New Year’s cookie whose disappearance they lamented. But on Dec. 6, 1809, St. Nicholas Day, Washington Irving gave him a much more substantial role in the “History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” a mock history attributed to fictitious Dutch-American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker. In this telling, the fourth-century Greek bishop was the patron saint of New Amsterdam, and thus New York. Nicholas could be recognized by his “mighty pipe,” the smoke from which “was a sovereign cure for an indigestion.” The locals honored him on his feast day by “making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.”

St. Nicholas Day was and is a day of celebration and gift-giving in Europe, especially the Netherlands, and there had been at least some observance of it before 1809 in New York. In December 1773, the New York Gazette reported that “the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus” had been celebrated at Protestant Hall “with great Joy and Festivity.” In the 1954 paper that launched the theory that modern Christmas was devised by a few residents of early-19th-century New York, Cornell University English professor Charles W. Jones argued that Calvinist 17th century Dutch authorities discouraged celebrations of the holiday and “there is no evidence that it existed in New Amsterdam or for a century after English occupation.” In his more recent (1987) history of the Dutch Golden Age, “The Embarrassment of Riches,” Columbia University’s Simon Schama indicated that those authorities invariably backed down in face of angry children, and I would guess that the holiday did live on among some families of Dutch descent in New York and the Hudson River Valley. But it doesn’t show up in the written record before 1773, and made few appearances over the next few decades.

After 1808, the St. Nicholas sightings started coming thick and fast. It wasn’t all Irving. In January 1809, well before the Knickerbocker “History” came out, an attendee at the annual banquet of the New York Historical Society, likely speaking at the behest of society founder John Pintard, offered this toast:

To the memory of St. Nicholas. May the virtuous habits and simple manners of our Dutch ancestors be not lost in the luxuries and refinements of the present time.

Pintard was a merchant who had become spectacularly rich during the early years of the republic, lost it all in the financial panic of 1792, then clawed his way back to respectability. His major interests included finding non-English patriotic symbols for Americans to rally around (he started the movement to turn Christopher Columbus into a national icon)(2) and providing opportunities for members of New York’s burgeoning working class to advance through thrift and careful planning (he was the city’s most important early backer of mutual savings banks). St. Nicholas could conceivably serve both purposes. 

Jones could find no evidence of Pintard’s St. Nicholas boosterism before the 1809 toast, but thought it could have started earlier. So Irving, who had embarked on the Knickerbocker “History” in part to parody the pretensions of the historical society, may have been making fun of an existing obsession. By the end of the project, though, he had joined the society (“he who came to scoff remained to pray,” Jones wrote) and, via his hugely popular humorous saga, given St. Nicholas a visibility that Pintard never could have achieved through conventional means.

Irving had a penchant for jokes that transmuted into lasting symbols. Gotham, for example, is a village in Nottinghamshire that got its name from the Old English term for a home for goats, and had a reputation in folklore as a place of fools (or at least people who pretended to be fools). In 1807 Salmagundi started wielding it as a mocking synonym for New York City, and it became … a synonym for New York City. Knickerbocker in turn evolved into a nickname for New Yorkers that is still reflected in multiple city institutions, among them its long-struggling professional basketball team. “Without Irving,” Jones concluded with some justification, “there would be no Santa Claus.”

It was others, though, who began saddling Santa/St. Nicholas with the role of moral enforcer. For the first of the annual St. Nicholas Day banquets that the historical society would hold for the rest of the decade, Pintard in December 1810 commissioned a print that depicted a tall, skinny St. Nicholas; a well-behaved little girl and a clearly naughty little boy; and stockings hung by a fireplace, one empty, one mostly empty. The print also included the text of a Dutch song about “Saint Nicholas, good holy man,” and its English translation, which shed no light on the naughty/nice situation.

Two weeks later, an anonymous poem about “Sancte Claus” in the New York Spectator newspaper filled in the blanks, making explicit that the gifts filling Sancte’s “panniers and pockets” would be deposited only in the stockings of children who refrained from “naughty behavior.”

In late December 1815, “Santa Clause” made a quite different appearance in a letter to the New York Post, as the “Queen and Empress of handsome girls, women married and unmarried, not excepting ugly girls, and old maids of all sorts, phizzes, sizes and descriptions,” who decreed that the holiday practice of men indiscriminately kissing women would be considered “vulgar, rude, indecent and ungentlemanlike” through Jan. 4. On the next day “Sanctus Nicholas” took to print to declare the proclamation of his “consort” to be invalid, but on the day after that the revocation was revoked. It seemed like another attempt, albeit a confusing one, at enforcing new behavioral standards for the season.

Settling on the season’s central holiday was important, too. Irving, who had moved to England in 1815 to help with his family’s struggling import-export business, soon gave a big boost to Christmas over St. Nicholas Day and New Year’s. His “Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” published in installments in 1819 and 1820, is best known for its Hudson Valley tales of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, but it also contains a multistory arc describing Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, a fictitious English country estate.

Irving had researched Christmases past in some depth at the British Museum, and the Bracebridge festivities he described included aspects of the raucous traditional celebration described above but in toned-down, church-focused, family-friendly form. He was explicit about this domestication, with his Squire Bracebridge explaining that he had initially attempted a full revival of old-time Christmas, with his estate open to all comers, but had after “many uncouth circumstances” restricted his invitations to “the decent part of the neighboring peasantry” while donating beef, bread and ale to the rest “that they might make merry in their own dwellings.”

Next came a series of refinements to Santa’s means of transportation. In 1821, Irving revised the Knickerbocker “History” for a new edition and added a dream sequence in which “good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to the children,” and subsequently rode away after “laying his finger beside his nose” and winking. That same year a New York publisher brought out a children’s book, author unknown, that showed “Santeclaus” on a rooftop in a sleigh, drawn by a single reindeer. It also said he delivered apples, tarts, wooden guns and painted carts to the good children and birch rods to bad ones.

Then, in 1823, came the poem that pulled it all together, and added a few innovations along the way. Published anonymously in a newspaper in Troy, 150 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, it depicted a fat, jolly, pipe-smoking St. Nicholas in an airborne sled pulled by eight reindeer. He delivers presents via chimney on Christmas Eve and disappears after “laying his finger aside of his nose,” just as in Irving’s account. It also featured a family that, far from rowdily carousing in the previous holiday custom, is snugly in bed long before St. Nick arrives.

Not every detail from the poem now known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas” became canon — its reindeer and sleigh were miniatures, and its Santa Claus was still called St. Nicholas — but it was reprinted far and wide over the course of the 1820s and 1830s and together with Irving’s Bracebridge Christmas stories, which also made regular December appearances in newspapers, it created a set of parameters for a family-focused holiday that proved quite influential. By 1831, Pintard was declaring that gift-giving on Christmas was “ancient usage” and that “St. Claas is too firmly riveted in this city ever to be forgotten.” Recent German immigrants soon added Christmas trees to the mix, and in the 1860s cartoonist Thomas Nast began to refine and standardize the visual representation of Santa Claus. Merchants also realized starting in the 1830s that Christmas gifts presented a huge commercial opportunity, a discovery that continues to shape the holiday.

Meanwhile, back in England, a Washington Irving superfan named Charles Dickens in 1836 repackaged the Bracebridge Hall festivities as the even homier Christmas at Dingley Dell in “The Pickwick Papers.” Seven years later they resurfaced as the Christmas Past of “A Christmas Carol,” in which Dickens also sketched out with the help of the Cratchits a vision of how a non-wealthy city-dwelling family might appropriately celebrate Christmas.

Or something like that. What got me started on this adventure was a column I wrote last December on the succession of (not great!) Christmas books Dickens wrote after “A Christmas Carol.” As part of my research I watched the 2017 Dickens biopic “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” and while looking up something about the movie online, I stumbled across an article on the Historic Hudson Valley website arguing that no, Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, Irving did.

It’s not as if either Irving or Dickens really did “invent” Christmas, of course. Many elements of the Christmas celebrations that preceded them still persist, and many holiday innovations have been introduced since. Other important Christmas image-shapers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was published in 1816 in Berlin, exercised their influence entirely independently of Irving and Dickens. Still, the idea that a young man living on William Street in downtown Manhattan in 1808 — in about the spot where a 66-story condominium tower by starchitect David Adjaye is nearing completion(3) — may have set in motion the chain of events that will lead to my family going to church this Christmas Eve, setting out stockings before we go to bed, then spending the next morning opening presents is somewhat mind-blowing.

There is one complication. That 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was credited in 1836 to New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore, and, in 1844, Moore embraced his authorship by publishing the poem in a collection of his works. Moore was acquainted with both Irving and Pintard but not exactly a buddy, as he outranked them both in wealth and social status. His father had been the Episcopal bishop of New York and president of Columbia College, while his mother handed down to him the vast West Side estate that her father had dubbed Chelsea. Moore initially fought the northward encroachment of the city onto his property, but by the 1820s he had begun to develop it, and had donated the land for the Episcopal seminary where he was one of the first professors. It is understandable that such a person wouldn’t immediately claim credit for a humorous verse that he had written for his children, and seems doubtful that he would do so falsely given the risk of embarrassment if this were exposed.

However, descendants of Henry Livingston Jr., a former Revolutionary War major who lived in the Hudson River town of Poughkeepsie and published numerous verses in the local newspaper, have long contended that he wrote the poem, and recited it to his family as early as 1808. In 1999, they approached Vassar College English Professor Don Foster, not long after he had correctly identified journalist Joe Klein as author of “Primary Colors” and before he had to retract two other high-profile attributions. After some textual analysis and a rather uncharitable reading of Moore’s character, Foster concluded that Livingston wrote the poem. A separate statistical analysis of Moore’s and Livingston’s work by an English professor in New Zealand came to a similar conclusion. A mock “Trial Before Christmas” in 2014 at the Rennselaer County Courthouse in Troy also resulted in a verdict in Livingston’s favor.

It doesn’t really matter to the story I’ve told here who wrote the poem, but it matters a lot when. If it was written just in time for Christmas 1822, as Moore family legend has it, it was the culmination of more than a decade of public experimentation by Irving, Pintard and others attempting to reshape the winter holidays. If Livingston really came up with all of it in 1808, he invented a new holiday tradition and vocabulary from whole cloth. That seems most unlikely, and after reading refutations of the Livingston authorship claim by several people well-acquainted with the period — historian Nissenbaum, antiquities dealer Seth Kaller and independent English scholar Scott Norsworthy — I’m inclined to think it’s bunk. So, apparently, do the relevant authorities: The annual New York public reading of the poem will take place this Sunday afternoon at 3 at the usual spot, Moore’s grave in Washington Heights. I might go. But I also might just go to the construction site on William Street and read back issues of Salmagundi.

(1) The mincemeat pies, which in those days really were made of meat, were a way of preserving it so it could be eaten for months to come.

(2) A movement to which Irving gave a huge boost with his 1828 "History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus," one of the most popular American books of the 19th century.

(3) According to Andrew Burstein's 2007 biography "The Original Knickerbocker," the source of most of the details about Irving in this column, he grew up at 128 William Street and was still living there with his mother in 1808. The address of the new building is 130 William, but it is bordered by 136 and 110, so ... close enough.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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