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In 1626, a fleet of ships left Holland for the New World. They purchased some land from the Iroquois, for $24, and named the village New (or Nieuw) Amsterdam. They brought with them their patron saint, Nicholas.
Just a few years later, in 1651, the State of Massachusetts -- settled by English Puritans -- banned all observation of Christmas. The legislature passed an act ruling that "whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas … either by forebearing labor, feasting, or in any other way … every such person so offending shall pay a fine for each offense of five shillings to the county." The law was repealed in 1681, but had a profound chilling effect on the celebration of Christmas in New England until the start of the 20th Century.
When Charles II of England made a gift of New Amsterdam to the Duke of York in 1664, the city was renamed New York. These new English, however, were not the Puritans that also helped to found America (it was Charles II who ousted Cromwell and the Puritans in England in 1660). Although the Dutch influence would wain, they had an ultimate revenge: the Dutch Sint Herr Nikolaas would later become Sinter Klass and finally Santa Claus.
Although the English took and renamed New Amsterdam in 1664, the Dutch origins could not be entirely erased. Whether or not there was an active cult of Saint Nicholas, it is clear that the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam/New York did not forget him
In 1773, St. Nicholas made the news in the New York Gazette, which referred to him as "otherwise known as St. A. Claus." And the Rivington’s Gazetteer (December 23, 1773) reported "Last Monday, the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s; where a great number of sons of the ancient saint [the Sons of Saint Nicholas] celebrated the day with great joy and festivity." Another such notice appeared in 1774: "Monday next, being the anniversary of Saint Nicholas, will be celebrated by the descends of the ancient Dutch Families."
But the Dutch and English were not the only early settlers of America. German immigrants brought with them their love of Christmas. They brought their custom of setting out hay in the barnyard for the Christ Child's donkey on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day finding the basket filled with snits (dried apple slices), choosets (candy), walnuts and gingerbread. As the Germans intermarried with the English, the dialect "Christ-kindle": from the proper German Christkindlein, became "Kristkingle" or "Kriss-kingle." Eventually the "Kriss Kringle" replaced the Christ Child figure entirely, a substitute akin to Santa Claus. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Kriss Kringle was the most common Christmas bearer in Pennsylvania.
The Coming of Santa Claus
The Dutch Saint Nicholas who brought gifts to children had a great white beard, and made his rounds in red-and-white bishop's robes, complete with a red, twin-peaked miter and crooked crosier. He was borne by a white horse. And he arrived on his Christian feast day, December 6 (or the night before). The gifts he left beside the hearth were usually small: fruit, nuts, hard candies, wood and clay figurines.
But in the melting pot of America, Santa Claus was merged from a combination of the Dutch St. Nicholas and English Father Christmas, and also included elements from German traditions and Norse mythology. These were merged into the American Santa Claus in the 19th century by the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, and the drawings of Thomas Nast, who created the image of Santa as a white-bearded, pot-bellied, jolly man.
Most of the central features of the Santa Claus legend, such as his climb down the chimney and the switches he leaves for naughty children, are of Dutch origin. His red suit trimmed with white fur originated in the red bishop's miter and cope worn by the Dutch saint, Saint Nicholas. This Dutch emphasis was not accidental.
The very beginnings of "Santa Claus" – as distinct from Saint Nicholas -- might be traced to John Pintard, who founded the New-York Historical Society in 1804 and who included St. Nicholas in his private almanac as early as 1793. Pintard and many others were deeply concerned about how the Christmas and New Year’s holidays had been celebrated. Often the celebrations featured gunfire, drunkenness, sexual licentious, home intrusions (by "wassailers"), and riots. Accordingly, Pintard took steps to take the celebration of Christmas off the streets and into the home. The New-York Historical Society’s patron saint was the Dutch Saint Nicholas. One of its members was the young American writer, Washington Irving. And one of Pintard’s acquaintances was Dr. Clement Moore who had entertained Pintard in Moore’s Chelsea estate.
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