NYC and the History of Christmas



New York City and Christmas go hand in hand. In fact, NYC gave us many of our modern-day Christmas traditions. Let’s explore the NYC Christmas traditions that most of the world celebrates today. Warning: the content may contain Santa Claus spoilers, so feel free to stop reading now. 


St. Nicholas


Santa has shown himself in many different forms over the centuries. Perhaps the earliest record we have of Santa is a bishop of Myra known as St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas of Myra did many good deeds, many of which directly gave joy to children. In one instance, there was a family with three daughters who needed dowries to be saved from a life of poverty, and St. Nicholas secretly snuck them bags of gold. This began his association to kindness with children. Lower Manhattan is home to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. This church houses a relic of St. Nicholas’s hand bone. Looking at the relic, we can remember the true meaning of Christmas… which links back to humbly doing good deeds and giving to others, just as St. Nicholas did. Many believe he continues to do so by watching over those who truly believe. 




Did you know that before New York was New York, it was a Dutch Colony called New Amsterdam? The Dutch brought with them many traditions and beliefs, including their devotion to St. Nicholas. They celebrated St. Nicholas with a ceremony called Sinterklaas, which typically took place on the 6th day of December.  Now of course, none of us really know what Santa Claus looks like, but today most believe he has white beard, white hair, and a red suit. This is how Sinterklaas has been depicted since the Middle Ages. The typical celebrations included children lining up shoes at night, in which Sinterklass would leave them presents, often an orange or gingerbread. During the American revolution, American colonists wished to separate themselves from the British and connect more to New York City’s Dutch origins, and thus the celebration of Sinterklaas was revived and has only grown since. 




Did you know that New York author Washington Irving played an important role in how we envision Santa today? The same man who gave us the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane also gave us the very first image of Santa Claus flying through the night sky. Under the pen name Deidrich Knickerbocker, Irving wrote a bit of historical fiction about Dutch New York. In this account, he claimed the Dutch had carved St. Nicholas into the mastheads of their ships and that St. Nicholas had appeared to them in a dream telling them where to set up the colony of New Amsterdam. He described St. Nicholas as having a long pipe and broad hat, and said St. Nicholas flew through the air in a wagon leaving presents in children’s stockings. This was the first time St. Nicholas was described as flying and the first mention of Christmas stockings. The founder of the New-York Historical Society loved this so much that in 1810, he organized a feast day for St. Nicholas. 




Our modern day imaginings of Santa Claus can most directly be linked to a New York City poet who lived in the neighborhood of Chelsea. That poet’s name was Clement Clarke Moore. In 1822, he wrote a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to amuse his six children. Through the years, Sinterklaas celebrations have melded with Christmas. Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” began, ”Twas the night before Christmas…” and then went on to describe St. Nicholas as a “jolly old elf” who was chubby and had white hair and rode around on a magical sleigh carried by 8 tiny reindeer. In 1823, Moore submitted this poem anonymously to the Troy Sentinel where it was published and Santa Claus history would be forever changed. 




We all know that Santa Claus loves everyone and isn’t supposed to play favorites, but since 1861, it has felt like Santa has a favorite NYC store, and that store is Macy’s. In 1861, Santa allegedly snuck into Macy’s and stocked all the shelves with the best Christmas gifts around. No one actually saw Santa come to Macy’s. Good boys and girls wouldn’t get to meet him in the store until the year 1862, and it would be over a hundred years before Santa established his home base of Santaland. He wouldn’t become a permanent fixture until 1977, but Macy’s advertisements assured the public that it was indeed St. Nicholas that brought Christmas gifts to their counters, and thus the connection between Santa and retail shopping was born. 




They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and perhaps no one proved that sentiment more true than Bavarian immigrant turned New Yorker, Thomas Nast, considered the father of the American cartoon. Nast was especially well known for political cartoons published in the magazine Harper’s Weekly. On January 3, 1863, two Thomas Nast images were published. The first depicted Santa Claus distributing presents to the Union Army during the Civil War. Since Nast was known for being political, he also slipped in imagery that hinted at Santa’s allegiance to the Union cause. The second image was Santa in his sleigh going down a chimney. Nast drew upon Clement Clarke Moore’s description as well as on himself, who had a white beard and round belly. Overall, Nast would go on to create 33 images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. And though no one could know it at the time, these images solidified Santa’s appearance as the jolly old elf we all know and love today. 




Here are some fun facts to impress your friends when you visit the Macy’s Holiday windows this year. First of all, know that Macy’s has not always been located at Herald Square. Until 1902, Macy’s was located on 14th Street, and that’s where their holiday window traditions began. In the 1880s, Macy’s hosted what were known as “window parades.” These were windows that displayed moving figurines powered by steam. Onlookers would parade down the sidewalk and marvel. 




Did you know that electric Christmas tree lights were invented in New York City? Before electric lights, families would illuminate their trees with candles. As you can imagine, the idea of candles on trees could prove quite problematic, so when Edward H. Johnson figured out a way to string colored light bulbs together and put them around a christmas tree, he was, quite literally, a life saver. Edward H. Johnson was a friend and partner to Thomas Edison who lived in NYC. In 1882, he made a string of 80 lights, each about the size of a walnut, to string around his family Christmas tree and display outside his NYC home, making him the father of electric Christmas lights. It would take many years before these lights became viable for the public to purchase, in part due to the cost. In 1882, each light cost approximately $33 in today’s money. To put that into perspective, it would have cost $1.65 million dollars to light the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree! Fortunately, today we can purchase electric lights for about 16 cents per foot of light, ensuring us an illuminated holiday season. 

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