- Historic Sites
A Certain Nicholas Of Patara
How folklore, the Reformation, and three inventive New Yorkers turned a dimly known Near Eastern saint into a jolly, secular Santa Claus
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Slightly more than a decade later, however, in 1821, there appeared in New York a small juvenile called The Children’s Friend , which contained eight quatrains devoted to “Santeclaus,” whom it exhibited riding in a sleigh drawn by exactly one prancing reindeer. So far as we know this is the first reference to the reindeer and sleigh now associated with Santa Claus. They arc both purely American inventions, and never existed in any European tradition. [Only two copies of The Children’s Friend are known to exist, by the way; one is at the American Antiquarian Society, and the other has been loaned to AMERICAN HERITAGE by its owner, our contributor, Mary Cable. Wc have reproduced it here in full.— Ed. ]
Both the sleigh and the reindeer—and perhaps even Santa himself—might have quickly expired, though, had it not been for Clement C. Moore, an Episcopal clergyman in New York City and the son of the Bishop of New York. In the year 1822, at the Christmas season, Moore wrote a poem for his children. The poem was “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or, as it is more widely known now, “The Night Before Christmas.” At first Moore thought the poem beneath his dignity, and would not acknowledge authorship of it until 1837, when it was published in a compilation of local poetry.
Moore had certainly read Irving, but in his crcation of the poem he did one thing which seems not to have been noted before. From living and the Dutch tradition he drew St. Nicholas, the traditional St. Nicholas. But from his past reading of the Knickerbocker History , Moore remembered most vividly the descriptions of the fat and jolly Dutch burghers with their white beards, red cloaks, wide leather belts, and leather boots. Thus, when he came to write a poem for his children, the traditional and somewhat austere St. Nicholas was transformed into a fat and jolly Dutchman. Also, from The Children’s Friend of the year before, which he had probably purchased for his own youngsters, he drew not one lone reindeer, but the now immortal and fanciful eight.
In the same year, 1837, when Moore’s poem appeared in book form, Santa Claus sat for his portrait in oil at—of all places—the United States Military Academy at West Point. The painting was done by Robert W. Weir, professor of art at the Academy, and shows a fat and jolly Santa with a “finger aside of his nose” about to ascend a chimney after filling the stockings beside it. His cape is red and white-furred, and the bag on his back is full of presents.
In the years immediately following, Santa Claus appeared at Christmas time on the small pocket-sized advertising cards of New York business firms. It was not until 1863, however, that he showed signs of becoming a truly national figure. In that year Thomas Nast, the great cartoonist of the century, began drawing annual Christmas pictures of him for Harper’s Weekly , the most notable popular magazine of the era. And then he reached the White House. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison told an inquiring newspaperman, “We shall have an old-fashioned Christmas, and I myself intend to dress up as Santa Claus for the children. If my influence goes for aught in this busy world, I hope that my example will be followed in every family in the land.”
And so it has come to pass. The legend that began at Myra in Asia Minor, and traveled via Constantinople, Russia, and Holland to New York, now reaches nearly every household. It is quite a pilgrimage.