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The Father of Santa Claus

Washington_Irving.JPG (77425 bytes)It was the popular author Washington Irving  (1783-1859) who gave Americans their first detailed "information" about the Dutch Saint Nicholas. Writing under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving wrote the satirical A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Irving dedicates his satirical "history" to the New-York Historical Society, and makes dozens of references to an impish, pipe-smoking Saint Nicholas who brings gifts down chimneys, thus beginning a legend that will travel round the world. That it was published on St. Nicholas's feast day, December 6, 1809, was no accident.

Irving describes the Goede Vrowe as having been made "by the ablest ship carpenters of Amsterdam, who, it is well known, always model their ships after the fair forms of their country-women. Accordingly, it had one hundred feet in the beam, one hundred feet in the keel, and one hundred feet from the bottom of the sternpost to the tafferel … full in the bows, with a pair of enormous cat-heads, a copper bottom, and withal a most prodigious poop!"

Irving described the architect as a "somewhat religious man … [who] … did laudably erect for a head, a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low brimmed hat, huge pair of Flemish hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit."

In describing the Dutch veneration for Saint Nicholas, Irving wrote

"And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream – and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that selfsame wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And the shrews Van Kortlandt know him by his broad hat, his long pipe, and the resemblance which he bore of the bow of the Goede Vrouw. And he lit his pipe by the fire and he sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And the sage Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extend of country – and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all which lasted but a moment and then faded away, until the whole rolled off and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his wagon he returned over the tree tops and disappeared." Book II, Chapter V.

Note: The familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside his nose..." first appeared in Irving's story, but would be seen again shortly. The meaning of the gesture is that the "story" being told, known to be a fiction, is presented as a truth. In the same manner, I might give 'a wink of the eye' when telling a tall fiction, signaling to those to whom the gesture is aimed that we are pretending that the fiction is a truth.

In Book III, Chapter II, Irving writes:

"Thrice happy and ever to be envied little Burgh! existing in all the security of harmless insignificance – unnoticed and unenvied by the world, without ambition, without vain glory, without riches, without learning, and all their train of carking cares – and as of yore, in the better days of man, the deities were wont to visit him on earth and bless his rural habitations, so we are told, in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas in these degenerate days of iron and bass he never shows us the light of his countenance nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children in token of the degeneracy of the parents."

Finally, Irving describes the retirement years of Governor Peter Stuyvesant:

"The good old Dutch festivals, those periodical demonstrations of an overflowing heart and a thankful spirit, which are falling into sad disuse among my fellow citizens, were faithfully observed in the mansion of Governor Stuyvesant. New Year was truly a day of open-handed liberality, of jocund revelry and warm-hearted congratulation — when the bosom seemed to swell with genial good-fellowship — and the plenteous table was attended with an unceremonious freedom and honest broad-mouthed merriment, unknown in these days of degeneracy and refinement. Paas and Pinxter were scrupulously observed throughout his dominions; nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by without making presents, handing the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies." Book VII, Chapter IX

The significance of Washington Irving in the story of Santa Claus can’t be understated. Charles W. Jones wrote, "Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus. The History contains two dozen allusions to him, many of them among the most delightful flights of imagination in the volumes. Here is the source of all the legends about St. Nicholas in New Amsterdam—of the emigrant ship Goede Vrouw, like a Dutch matron as broad as she was long, with a figurehead of Saint Nicholas at the prow; here are the descriptions of festivities on N Day in the colony, and of the church dedicated to him; here is the description of Santa Claus bringing gifts, parking his horse and wagon on the roof while he slides down the chimney—all sheer fictions produced by Irving’s Salmagundi crowd."

It is interesting to note that Irving’s comic fiction, within his lifetime, became "historical fact." Jones quotes Mary L. Booth, writing in 1859 (the same year as Irving’s death):

The Dutch have five national festivals which were observed throughout the city; namely Kerstrydt (Christmas); Nieuw jar (New Year); Paas (the Passover); Pinxter (Whitsuntide); and Santa Claus (St. Nicholas or Christkinkle day) … but Santa Claus day was the best of all in the estimation of the little folk, who, of all others, enjoyed holidays the most intensely. It is notable, too, for having been the day sacred to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of New York, who presided at the figure-head of the first emigrant ship that touched her shores, who gave his name to the first church erected within her walls, and who has ever since been regarded as having especially charge of the destinies of his favorite city. To the children, he was a jolly, rosy-cheeked little old man, with a low-crowned hat, a pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe of immense length, who drove his reindeer sleigh loaded with gifts from the frozen regions of the North over the roofs of New Amsterdam for the benefit of good children. Models of propriety were they for a week preceding the eventful Christmas eve. When it came, they hung their stockings, carefully labelled [sic], that the saint might make no mistakes, in the chimney corner, and went early to bed, chanting the Santa Claus hymn, in addition to their usual devotions

Sancte Claus goed heylig Man!
Trek uwe beste Tabaert aen,
Reiz daer me'e na Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam na 'Spanje,
Waer Appelen van Oranje,
Waer Appelen van granaten,
Wie rollen door de Straaten.

Sancte Claus, myn goede Vriend!
Ik heb U allen tyd gedient,
Wille U my nu wat geven,
Ik zal U dienen alle myn Leven.

Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, clad therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Hispanje,
Where apples bright of Oranje,
And likewise those granate surnam’d
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim'd.

Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend!
To serve you ever was my end,
If you will, now, me something give,
I’ll serve you ever while I live.

[Compare: Sinterklaas, Goed Heilig Man and St. Nicholas, Good Holy Man.]

These rhymes, Mr. Valentine tells us, continued to be sung among the children of the ancient Dutch families as late as the year 1851. But the custom is passing away, and the Christmas gifts are given prosaically without legend or tradition.

This quotation might also solve the questions raised by two references in The History of New York, which refer to "the great song of Saint Nicholas":

Book VI, Chapter IV [Describing the army of New Amsterdam, raised to protect the city from the marauding Swedes of New Sweden:]

""…Then the Van Hoesens of Sing Sing, great choristers and players upon the jews harp; these marched two and two, singing the great song of St. Nicholas." [emphasis added]

Book VI, Chapter VIII [Further describing the battle with the Swedes]:

"At another place were collected on a rising knoll the valiant men of Sing-Sing, who assisted marvellously in the fight by chanting forth the great song of St. Nicholas…." [emphasis added]

Irving never describes the words to "the great song of Saint Nicholas" with sufficient accuracy to permit identification of the song in question. Perhaps Miss Booth’s verse (above and also reproduced in Anderson’s broadside on the next page) is that song.

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