Cleaning Up Christmas

It wasn't always ho-ho-ho

Illustration by Maurice Vellekoop
Illustration by Maurice Vellekoop

In 1809, the celebrated American author Washington Irving published his first book, a satire entitled A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the nom de plume Diedrich Knickerbocker. Today, Irving is best known for his later tales of Dutch colonial times—“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” But his first book, written when the author was twenty-six, would have a profound effect on the mythology of Christmas.

Irving’s mock history, an attempt to give the city a mythical past, introduced to his readers the Dutch love of Saint Nicholas. According to Irving, the first ship to have brought colonists from the Netherlands to the New World featured a carving of the saint’s image on its very prow. He further claimed that the children of New Amsterdam—now Manhattan—awaited the yearly arrival of the saint who would fly over the city in a wagon and drop presents down chimneys on his name day, December 6. For most readers outside the New York area, this was the first they had heard of any flying, supernatural, nocturnal Christmas Gift-Bringer, but it was not to be the last.

Irving was the first of a small group of poets, illustrators, and essayists in New York to remake Christmas in North America in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Knickerbockers, as they came to be known, sought to bridge the gap between the lower classes and the elites that was expressed in their respective end-of-year celebrations. Decent folk attended church, hosted elegant balls, and stayed indoors; in other quarters, the season was marked by vulgarity and violence.

In Canada, the latter kind of celebration took on various forms. The Newfoundland custom of masked parades and house invasion (termed “mumming” or “mummering”) at Christmas, for example, often served as cover for vandalism, riot, and assault. Soon after newlywed fisherman Isaac Mercer was axed to death—allegedly by three masked men—in the Christmas season of 1860, the legislature banned the practice of mumming—a law that remained in force for over a century. Disorder in the streets of Montreal forced the cancellation of midnight Mass in 1848, and a Quebec priest complained of the Christmas season: “This is the time of year when there is greatest dissipation, the most amusements and the greatest disorder.”

In New York, the Knickerbockers sought to move Christmas away from its outdoor, proletarian, alcohol-fuelled expressions and toward its celebration as a domestic, middle-class, child-centred holiday. Their “Battle for Christmas,” as social historian Stephen Nissenbaum has memorably termed it, succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings.

A year after Irving’s satire was published, New Yorkers, or at least some of the city’s more respectable citizens, were further reminded of Saint Nicholas through the efforts of a prominent public figure, John Pintard. Pintard was the founder of the New-York Historical Society, and for its 1810 annual meeting, he prepared a handout featuring a picture of the saint. The woodcut that decorated his pamphlet showed Nicholas as a stern figure clad in the traditional robe of a bishop, surmounted by a halo, and holding a rod. Accompanying his portrait is a domestic scene taking place on the morning of December 6. A blazing fire illuminates the stockings—which he has magically filled—hanging on the mantel and a breakfast of sausages and waffles (always associated in the public mind with Holland). A little girl, whose behaviour throughout the year has presumably won her the saint’s favour, holds an apron full of goodies; her brother, whom we must conclude has been a naughty child, bawls at discovering the chastising rods that have been left for him.

New York seemed to be in the grip of Saint Nicholas fever. That same month, the New York Spectator published another poem by an anonymous author praising “Sancte Claus”—the “good holy man”—for the gifts he brings, asking him to spare the rod and promising him good behaviour in return.

Over the next few years, a number of variations on Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, appeared in print: Santa-claw, Santeclaus, Sandy Claw, and Sanctus Klaas. The range of monikers speaks to a long-standing oral transmission of the legend of a Christmas Gift-Bringer, rather than, as some have suggested, the outright invention of Santa Claus by a Knickerbocker literary clique.

The Children’s Friend, published by William Gilley in 1821, was thought to be the first to include a picture of Santa Claus. No one knows who wrote this work, or who drew the pictures of “Santeclaus” tiptoeing through the house and sitting in his reindeer-drawn sleigh with its built-in bookshelf. But the creator had more than his fair share of creative genius. The Children’s Friend wrenches Santa Claus out of his Dutch context and places him in a winter setting appropriate to North America in December. The saint’s traditional horse-drawn wagon is replaced by a reindeer and sleigh, and his nocturnal visit has been moved from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The Gift-Bringer is no longer the stern bishop of Pintard’s woodcut. Now he is a smiling wearer of a tall fur hat (helpfully labelled “Santeclaus”) and a fur-trimmed robe that resembles that worn by Old Christmas in seventeenth-century prints. He has not forsaken his judgmental nature, though—the poet is quite clear that good behaviour will be rewarded with gifts, and bad behaviour punished by that “long, black, birchen rod.”

Though The Children’s Friend has long been forgotten by all but Christmas historians, its innovations were put to good use within a year in a piece of poetry that became the climax of the literary battle to change the holiday, a poem that has been reprinted more than any other poem of any kind in history.

In the Christmas season of 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a prosperous New York scholar and landowner, wrote a series of verses in a lively anapestic rhythm for the amusement of his daughters. (Or so the story goes—some scholars believe the true author was one of Moore’s contemporaries, poet Henry Livingston Jr.) The poem, which appeared anonymously in the Troy Sentinel a year later under the title “Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas,” begins with the famous line: “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

The fifty-six lines in the poem constituted a revolution. What Moore had done was to cap the work that Irving, Pintard, and The Children’s Friend had begun. They had redefined Christmas by moving its focus from the tavern and the street, with all their associated bawdiness and violence, to the kitchen and the family fireplace—from adult conviviality to the expectant child. Moore went further. He not only stripped the Gift-Bringer of his bishop’s robes, but also took away his rods of chastisement, reimagining him as a non-sectarian, genial avatar of grandfatherly benevolence that no child need fear. At one and the same time, he behaved like a peddler and a lord: the perfect literary creation for a young, self-confident America carving an identity out of the New World.

Moore’s poem was quickly reprinted across the northeastern states and eventually reached Canada. It became the fountainhead for spreading the Santa Claus legend and domesticating Christmas. For decades after, there was no one standard version of the nocturnal visitor or even agreement as to his name. Some in the Knickerbocker school clung to the appellation Saint Nicholas, while in Philadelphia, he was Kriss Kringle (an oral mangling of das Christkindl) or Belsnickel; still others used some variation of Santa Claus.

His size was hotly debated. Moore’s “right jolly old elf” was small enough to come down a chimney, barely scraping the sides, and was pulled by a “miniature sleigh”; in other incarnations, he was adult-sized. He was a bearded old man; he was a smooth-cheeked youth; he was outfitted like a Dutch peddler; he dressed like George Washington; he was “a little old negro,” a “fearful fire-breathing monster,” and a yeoman farmer “in German style.” By the late 1850s, his home was traced to the Arctic, where he was assisted by a legion of elves. And then in the 1860s, Thomas Nast, a German-American cartoonist whose work appeared in Harper’s Weekly, finally introduced the jovial, bearded face that would from then on define our image of Santa Claus.

Prompted by children’s books, articles in women’s magazines, letters from distant family members, or chats with their neighbours, parents began to encourage their children to put up stockings by the fireplace or at the foot of their beds on December 24. They told stories of a supernatural dispenser of gifts who loved little ones, particularly the well-behaved, and who would fill these stockings with treats. They devised means by which children could communicate their wishes to Santa Claus: night-time prayers, or letters placed in mailboxes—or in shoes by the window, or in the family’s miniature Nativity scene, or burnt in the fireplace so that their smoke might be wafted to an icy workshop. Throughout the year, parents set aside money to be spent in December or laboured in secret to make toys, carving, hammering, knitting. Fathers hauled dead conifers into the house, propped them up, and decorated them with cookies, baubles, popcorn, and paper chains. Mothers baked items not seen in the house during the rest of the year and strove to make the Christmas meal a special one.

Children were told that they must be asleep in order for the Gift-Bringer to come, that they might leave him and his team of reindeer sustenance, and that, if they were very lucky, they might hear the jingle of the harness as they drifted off. Every Christmas season across the US, countless parents told fibs, spread pious fables, and acted out little deceptions—tracks of a sleigh in the snow outside or in the ashes of the fireplace, thank-you notes from Santa, and gasps of mock surprise as stockings were opened. This was a web of deceit of the kind conspiracy theorists of a later century could only dream about—a massive penetration of the American mind, willingly accepted and renegotiated over each generation. What other idea in history has ever spread so quickly, effectively, and gently?

Why did parents in the middle of the nineteenth century adopt this concept of Christmas? Certainly, there was some self-interest involved. The notion of an all-seeing supernatural figure who could reward or withhold favours, not in some distant afterlife but in the near future, was a wonderful aid to child-rearing. Moreover, by making Christmas the customary time for gift-giving, parents could urge thrift and restraint during other times of the year. But there were larger societal values at work—ones related to the way we treat our kids. As an 1856 editorial in Harper’s suggests, “Love is the moral of Christmas. What are the gifts but the proofs and signs of love?”

With the rise of the Industrial Revolution and increasing urbanization, attitudes toward children had gradually changed. Childhood came to be seen as a separate time of life, precious and fleeting. Techniques of child-rearing were growing less harsh and more tender, more accommodating of a child’s natural inclinations. The utterly didactic children’s literature of the eighteenth century had given way, as Moore’s poem showed, to more fanciful genres. The new industrialized economy had multiplied the number of goods available and lowered their prices so that children’s toys were now within the reach of more parents, making mothers and fathers into mass consumers and children into luxury objects on which they were willing to spend money.

By mid-century, the American Santa Claus was not only a fixture in the stories told in American homes—he was a positive boon to merchants. Almost as soon as Clement Clarke Moore had revealed his peddler-like creation, stores saw the Gift-Bringer as the ideal pitchman for their products. They claimed that Santa had been seen in their establishment choosing their merchandise; they decorated their shops with his image. And before the end of the century, he was seen presiding in person in a grotto where he received children and heard their wishes.

The Santa Claus story had by then spread abroad to Canada and Europe. In 1869, a merchant from Fredericton, New Brunswick, announced that “Santa Claus and Sampson’s have this day entered into a co-partnership in order to more fully meet the demands of parents as well as their children during the coming holiday season . . . Parties residing in the city can bring their children’s socks to our Establishment Thursday or Friday the 23rd and 24th inst., and OLD SANTA will carefully fill them with the choicest Confectionery, Nuts, Fruits, Toys, etc.”

Now Christmas buying and giving was about the acquisition of mass-produced goods and, as such, the holiday became an increasingly important part of the economy. Retail stores, toy manufacturers, bakers, card makers, jewellers, bookstores, publishers, makers of ornaments and crèches, confectioners, woodsmen, importers, stationers, butchers and poulterers, newspapers, magazines, restaurants, theatres, music halls, furriers, porters, haberdashers, milliners, copywriters, illustrators, carters, taverners, bankers—and so on—all prospered at Christmastime. The new railroads opened up the possibility of reliable winter travel and helped to create the holiday homecoming industry. The newly developed national postal services led to the massive exchange of seasonal cards and the maintenance of family connections. The North American Christmas economy began to make global demands—the toy makers of Nuremberg, the glass-blowers of Bohemia, the paper-ornament makers of Dresden all began shipping their goods across the Atlantic, gladdening the hearts of teamsters, steamship owners, and dockworkers.

This sort of Christmas had no time for good old-fashioned riotous assembly. New urban laws cracked down on the rowdiness, professionalized police forces were organized, and the streets of North American cities in late December were gradually taken back from the mobs. Middle-class reformers used the season to urge an end to alcohol consumption and its evils. As Nissenbaum has noted, the holiday had been redefined. When the newspapers reported on balls, church services, Santa Claus, and family merriment, they now did so under the heading “Christmas.” The older sort of disorder, by contrast, had been featured in columns marked “Police.”

This appeared in the December 2016 issue.

Adapted from Christmas in the Crosshairs by Gerry Bowler with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2017 and published by Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved.

Gerry Bowler
Gerry Bowler wrote Christmas in the Crosshairs and has taught at the University of Manitoba.
Maurice Vellekoop
Maurice Vellekoop has drawn for Vogue, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine.