Revisiting “A Visit from St. Nicholas”


THE CHRISTMAS SEASON was always an important occasion in the life of John Pintard, a prominent New York City merchant and civic leader of the early nineteenth century. As Pintard went to bed on the evening of December 31, 1820, he was looking forward to the schedule he had carefully laid out for the celebration of New Year’s Day, the season’s end. First he would get up early for a private chat with his daughter, who was married but still lived in the household. Next there would be a devotional morning service at a nearby Episcopal church. The middle hours of the day would be devoted to an extended round of “ceremonial and friendly visits” with acquaintances and colleagues around the city. Finally, in midafternoon Pintard would return to his Wall Street home, where the entire household would, as he put it, “assemble round our festive boards” for a “little family party”—a meal of venison and other holiday dishes that had been prepared weeks in advance, and punctuated by a series of toasts “drunk with all affection and old fashioned formality.”

Pintard managed, the next day, to get through most of the activities he had planned, but only after his night’s sleep had been interrupted—not once but twice. First, in the middle of the night, with the household sound asleep, Pintard’s daughter was awakened when she heard “someone take [a] key and deliberately open the door.” The family knew that New Year’s Eve marked the peak of rowdy Christmas revels in New York, so Pintard had reason to fear the presence of an intruder. He roused his wife (“mama,” as he referred to her in a letter written very early the next morning). “I threw on my clothes in haste, and down we sallied [to investigate,] found the back parlor door ajar, but nothing out of place.” As it turned out, the noise was only a false alarm—the family’s black servant had merely arisen early in order to light a fire in the study. So Pintard returned to bed. But no sooner had he fallen asleep than he was roused again, this time by bands of loud revelers marching down Wall Street and directly outside his house, banging on drums, blowing fifes and whistles, and all the while loudly proclaiming the New Year. The revelers did not leave, and in fact kept Pintard up for the rest of the night: They “interrupted all repose until daylight, when I arose, leaving mama … to take a little rest till nine, when I shall call [her].”1

What this little episode reveals is two incompatible styles of celebrating the holiday season. One of them, that of John Pintard, was a daytime affair, genially formal, and quiet. The other, that of the revelers in the street, was nocturnal, aggressively public, and just as noisy as they could make it. It was, in short, carnival. The two styles came into conflict in Pintard’s household only two years before Pintard’s friend Clement Clarke Moore wrote his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—the account of a rather different kind of nighttime visitation during the Christmas season. The connection is not artificial, for John Pintard himself played a role in the development of Christmas as we know it today. One might even say that his role was that of John the Baptist to the figure of Santa Claus that Moore would soon perfect.


A generation earlier, in 1786, a newspaper in a nearby community pointed out the same contrast between the different fashions in which New Yorkers celebrated the season: “Some good people religiously observe it as a time set apart for a most sacred purpose,” some by “decently feasting with their friends and relatives.” But others observe the holiday by “revelling in profusion, and paying their sincere devotion to merry Bacchus.” The newspaper went on to rephrase the contrast in metaphoric terms: “in several churches divine service [was] performed,” while “the temples dedicated to the service of merriment, dissipation and folly, were much crouded [sic]; where the sons of gluttony and drunkenness satiate their respective appetites.”

The scene with these gentry generally concludes about midnight, when they sally forth into the streets, and by their unmeaning, wild, extravagant noise, disturb those citizens who would rather sleep than get drunk.2

Chapter 1 of this book argues that traditional Christmas misrule did not ordinarily pose a significant threat to the social order or to the authority of the gentry class. In fact, it actually served to reinforce the existing order of things by providing a sanctioned opportunity for the poor to let off steam; it was a safety valve that allowed them to express resentments in a fashion that was generally apolitical. Indeed, the form that misrule commonly took—that of inverting the ordinary social structure rather than simply ignoring it—may have served to confirm the legitimacy of the status quo. After all, what the patron received from his clients in return for his gifts was their goodwill—something that had a great deal of value, indeed, in the dynamics of a paternalist order.

But this would change as paternalism itself came to wither away as a dominant form of social relations. In England much of the change took place during the eighteenth century. E. P. Thompson has argued that in eighteenth-century England it was the upper classes themselves who severed the paternalist bonds that allowed the rituals of misrule to operate as a safety valve. Both the gentry and the established church abandoned their control over holiday rituals; these now became purely “plebeian” cultural expressions. (The Boston Anticks discussed in Chapter 1 offer a good example of what Thompson had in mind.) In this new setting, rituals of misrule began to assume a more clearly oppositional form. Thompson describes these eighteenth-century protests as a kind of political “theater,” directed at the gentry “audience” before whom it was “performed”—something less than a full-fledged radical movement but more than sheer, unfocused rowdiness.3 For example, in eighteenth-century England there appeared a kind of late-night serenade on New Year’s Eve known as the “callithumpian band”—possibly derived from the Greek word calli-(for “beautiful”). But the music these bands played was hardly beautiful. It was meant to be loud and offensive, characterized by “beating on tin pans, blowing horns, shouts, groans, catcalls,” and it was performed as a gesture of deliberate mockery; the general term in England for such things was “rough music.” (This was not wholly new; “rough music” is simply the British term for what in France was called “charivari.” But the callithumpian bands seem to have directed their “rough music” against those who seemed to be claiming too much dignity or abusing their power.)4

By the early nineteenth century, with the spread of wage labor and other modes of capitalist production in England and the United States, what I have chosen to call the “battle for Christmas” entered an acute phase. For some urban workers, the Christmas season no longer entailed a lull in the demand for labor; their employers insisted on business as usual.5 (It was this impulse that Charles Dickens would caricature in his character Ebenezer Scrooge.) For other urban workers, the coming of winter brought the prospect of being laid off, as the icing-up of rivers brought water-powered factories to a seasonal halt. December’s leisure thus meant not relative plenty but forced unemployment and want. The Christmas season, with its carnival traditions of wassail, misrule, and callithumpian “street theater,” could easily become a vehicle of social protest, an instrument to express powerful ethnic or class resentments. Little wonder, then, that the upper classes displayed little interest in making the season a major holiday. Before the mid-1820s the holiday was mentioned only cursorily in British and American newspapers.6 The turn of the nineteenth century may have marked a historic low point in the celebration of Christmas among the elite.

LET US return, then, to New York City, where John Pintard’s neighborhood was subjected to the rough music of a callithumpian band in 1821, and where our modern American Christmas was invented, the following year, with the composition of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” New York in the early nineteenth century was a fast-growing place. As late as 1800, the urbanized part of the city covered only a small area at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, well to the south of what are now the numbered streets. But the size of the city’s population had begun a rapid, almost geometrical increase—from 33,000 in 1790 to 200,000 in 1830 and 270,000 just five years later. In order to accommodate the rapid increase in population, the city in 1811 started implementation of a plan to construct a regular grid system of numbered streets (and avenues) that would crisscross the entire island. (As we shall see, this plan would have an effect on Clement Clarke Moore.)

The numerical growth of the city’s population was accompanied by a change in its composition: an influx of immigrants, especially Irish Catholics, and the appearance of an impoverished underclass that was living for the first time in its own poor districts (generally divided up by ethnicity and race), along with a wealthy upper class that took up residence in its fashionable ones.7 In the second decade of the nineteenth century, New York underwent an explosion of poverty, vagrancy, and homelessness. That was followed in the third decade by serious outbreaks of public violence. In the eyes of New York’s “respectable” citizens, to quote a recent historian on the subject, “the entire city appeared to have succumbed to disorder…. [It] seemed to be coming apart completely.”8 Many well-to-do New Yorkers began to move out to new uptown estates, which they enclosed with fences or hedges. In turn, those fences were sometimes pulled down, and the hedges uprooted, by poor and homeless people who persisted in regarding the new estates as “common land” open to everyone. As a result, by the 1820s these estates were commonly being guarded by watchmen, drawn from the same underclass as the rioters themselves.

The city’s streets became the center of a different version of the same conflict. As Elizabeth Blackmar has written, the city’s poorest residents—“peddlers, ragpickers, prostitutes, scavengers, beggars, and … criminals”—depended for subsistence on the freedom of the streets, and the unregulated opportunity to accost strangers at will, whether for legal or illegal purposes. But by the 1820s, the propertied classes had begun to make systematic efforts to protect themselves from such “unwanted intrusions from the streets.”9

John Pintard was one such propertied man. He was deeply troubled by the increasing visibility of poor people and by the danger their aggressive behavior posed to respectable New Yorkers.10 Pintard was the moving force behind the establishment, in 1817, of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, an organization designed to put both a cap on the skyrocketing costs of poor relief and a stop to the public begging and drinking of the poor in order to make the city streets a safe place for people like himself.11 Needless to say, all these efforts failed. By 1828 Pintard was acknowledging that the problems of poverty, drinking, and street crime had, “I confess, baffled all our skill…. The evil is obvious, acknowledged by all, but a sovereign remedy appears to be impossible.”12

It should come as no surprise that all of these developments were reflected in the transformation of the Christmas season. As early as 1772, a New York newspaper complained that the absence of “decency, temperance, and sobriety” at Christmas was so serious a matter that it belonged in the courts. The problem was caused by “[t]he assembling of Negroes, servants, boys and other disorderly persons, in noisy companies in the streets, where they spend the time in gaming, drunkenness, quarreling, swearing, etc., to the great disturbance of the neighborhood.” The behavior of these rowdies was “so highly scandalous both to religion and civil government, that it is hoped the Magistrates will interpose to suppress the enormity.”13

By 1820 Christmas misrule had become such an acute social threat that respectable New Yorkers could no longer ignore it or take it lightly. What Susan G. Davis has demonstrated in her study of Philadelphia in this period holds equally true of New York. By the 1820s bands of roaming young street toughs, members of the emerging urban proletariat, were no longer restricting their seasonal reveling to their own neighborhoods; they had begun to travel freely, and menacingly, wherever they pleased. Often carousing in disguise (a holdover from the old tradition of mumming), these street gangs marauded through the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, especially on New Year’s Eve, in the form of callithumpian bands, which resembled (and may have overlapped with) the street gangs that were now vying for control of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Throughout the night these bands made as much noise as they could, sometimes stopping deliberately at the houses of the rich and powerful.14 In 1826, for example, such a gang stopped in front of the Broadway house of the city’s mayor; there they “enacted” what a local newspaper termed “a scene of disgraceful rage.”15 The next year another newspaper sarcastically described these same gangs as “a number of ill-bred boys, chimney sweeps, and other illustrious and aspiring persons” whose sole purpose was “to perambulate the streets all night, disturbing the slumbers of the weary … by thumping upon tin kettles, sounding penny[whistles] and other martial trumpets.”16 John Pintard would have understood.

In 1828 there occurred an extensive and especially violent callithumpian parade, complete with the standard array of “drums, tin kettles, rattles, horns, whistles, and a variety of other instruments.” This parade began along the working-class Bowery, where the band pelted a tavern with lime; then it marched to Broadway, where a fancy upper-class ball was being held at the City Hotel; then to a black neighborhood, stopping at a church where the callithumpians “demolished all the windows, broke the doors [and] seats,” and beat with sticks and ropes the African-American congregants who were holding a “watch” service; next, the band headed to the city’s main commercial district, where they smashed crates and barrels and looted at least one shop; still unsatisfied, they headed to the Battery (at the southern tip of the city), where they broke the windows of several of the city’s wealthiest residences and tried to remove the iron fence that surrounded Battery Park; finally they headed back to Broadway for a second visit. This time a group of hired watchmen were waiting for the callithumpians; but the band stood down the watch force, and, in the words of a local newspaper, “the multitude passed noisily and triumphantly up Broadway.”17

What are we to make of scenes like these? Once again, E. P. Thompson makes a convincing case that it would be misleading to interpret them either as wholly conscious political protest or as mere revelry that got out of hand, a kind of nineteenth-century frat party. Historians of American cities have agreed with that assessment. One of them puts it like this: “Riotous disorder, racial violence, and jolly foolery for neighbors and audiences existed side by side … for decades…. Customary Christmas license combined with seasonal unemployment made the winter holiday a noisy, drunken, threatening period in the eyes of the respectable.” And another historian suggests that New York’s callithumpians can be considered “a bridge between the traditional youth group misrule of the English village … and a more direct challenge to authority.”18


Let us return for a few minutes to our friend John Pintard, if only because at one point, in December 1823, Pintard offered his own interpretation of the situation—and it is both interesting in itself and germane to the question of Christmas. Pintard mused that it might be the culture of Protestantism itself that was to blame for New York’s problems. Protestants, he argued, unlike Catholics and even pagans, had systematically suppressed the kind of “religious festivals” at which “mechanics and laborers” could find officially sanctioned and organized “processions” that would allow them to release their “pent-up” energies in satisfying but orderly ways.19 (Pintard might almost seem to be referring to Puritans in particular rather than to Protestants in general.)

In fact, John Pintard himself was drawn almost compulsively to ceremonies, rituals, and traditional practices—for himself and his family, for New York City, and even for the United States as a nation. And when he could not find such things, he devised them. (One of the nation’s first antiquarians, Pintard was the founder of the New-York Historical Society in 1804; and he played a role in the establishment of Washingtons Birthday, the Fourth of July, and even Columbus Day as national holidays.20) In fact, it was John Pintard who brought St. Nicholas to America, in an effort to make that figure both the icon of the New-York Historical Society and the patron saint of New York City. In 1810 Pintard paid for the publication of a broadside, sponsored by the Historical Society, that featured a picture of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season (actually, on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6). The picture was accompanied by a short poem that began, “Sánete Claus goed heylig man.”21

In his letters Pintard regularly expressed nostalgia for what he called the “old customs” and “ancient usages” of New York, and particularly for the forgotten spirit of the old Christmas season, when rich folk and poor, old and young, would mingle together in genial harmony in the streets of the city.22 But Pintard never managed to discover or devise any way of observing the Christmas holidays that actually involved working-class people. All of his own carefully planned seasonal rituals were restricted to the members of his own social class (for example, the formalized New Year’s Day described at the beginning of this chapter). The reason for this narrowing down was clear: It had simply become impossible for New York’s respectable citizens to continue participating in the rowdy old cross-class celebrations that Pintard recalled fondly from his own youth, when he and a family servant traveled together around New York in “boisterous” fashion, drinking a “dram” at every stop and “coming home loaded with sixpences.” As Pintard put it in 1827, “since staggering through the streets on New Years day is out of fashion [now], it is impossible to drink drams at every house as of old.” And while Pintard sorely regretted the disappearance of the goodwill that had characterized such occasions of public drinking in the olden days—he referred to this as “the joyous older fashion”—he also understood that the social price to be paid for that goodwill had become impossibly high. He noted that “intemperance, among the higher classes of our city, is no longer the order of the day. Among the hospitable circles …, a man would be marked who should retire intoxicated; indeed, convivial parties are all decent and sober.”23

Sobriety had become a necessity. “It is well,” Pintard acknowledged with a kind of sigh—“It is well, for formerly New Years was a riotous day.” And he quickly added, as if suddenly recalling that the real problem was a present-day one, that “the beastly vice of drunkenness among the lower laboring classes is growing to a frightful excess…. Thefts, incendiaries, and murders—which prevail—all arise from this source.”24 After all, that was why he had founded the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism.

Since there existed no Christmas rituals that were socially acceptable to the upper class, Pintard took on the responsibility of inventing them—characteristically enough, in the name of restoring something that had been forgotten. For more than twenty years—roughly between 1810 and 1830—he tried almost every year to come up with the perfect holiday. (Before the late 1820s these holidays did not involve Christmas Day itself; until 1827 Pintard always observed December 25 in simple fashion, as a time of prayer and private religious devotion.)

In the 1810S, Pintard organized and led elaborate St. Nicholas’ Day banquets for his fellow members of the New-York Historical Society, held at the society’s office in City Hall. But in 1820 his celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was interrupted: “At six [p.m.] I attended [a meeting of] the Pauperism Society, for even festivity must not interfere with works of benevolence.” That, as it happens, is the last mention of St. Nicholas’ Day in Pintard’s published correspondence. By this time, and with an increasing intensity of commitment throughout most of the 1820s, he had turned to New Year’s Day—holding lavish dinners for his extended family, and making formal visits to old friends and relatives around the city. On January 1, 1821, Pintard engaged, apparently for the first time, in what he called “the good old custom of mutual visitings and cordial greetings.” For the rest of the decade he devoted each year to efforts to establish New Year’s as a day of mutual visitation in New York, describing it (as he did in 1822) as “the custom of the simple Dutch settlers.” Pintard sometimes referred to this custom with the phrase “open house,” but his use of the phrase is clear: Houses were “open” only to old friends and kin—to members of his own class. And in 1828 he ruefully admitted that the phenomenon was fading away in New York: “[T]he joyous older fashion [of visitation] has declined gradually.” Two years later he explained why: The practice was becoming “irksome” because “our city grows so extensive, and friends so scattered.”25 But by then, as we shall see, Pintard had discovered Christmas.

IN FACT, Pintard was not the only New Yorker who expressed an interest in restoring the old customs of the Christmas season. In 1819 and 1820 there appeared a book written by a fellow member of the New-York Historical Society—Washington Irving. Irving had actually written parts of The Sketch Book, as he titled his new publication, at one of the tables in the Historical Society. The book was a smashing success, one that propelled Irving into sudden transatlantic celebrity. The Sketch Book contained two stories that were destined to become classics: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But it also included five stories about Christmas. Unlike “Rip Van Winkle,” those Christmas tales were not about the Dutch heritage of New York but were set on a gracious estate in the modern British countryside, Bracebridge Hall. In these stories Irving used Christmas as the setting for a culture in which all the classes joined together in paternalist harmony.

Irvings narrator is hosted at Christmas by old Squire Bracebridge, an antiquarian-minded gentleman who is obsessed with the past, and who wields so much social authority that he is able to recruit the neighboring peasantry to join him in a reenactment, under his direction, of “the holyday customs and rural games of former times.” Irving’s narrator waxes eloquent as he contemplates “the quaint humours, the burlesque pageants, the complete abandonment to mirth and good fellowship with which this [Christmas] festival was celebrated.” The occasion “seemed to throw open every door, and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness.”

At the climax of the “Bracebridge Hall” stories the squire presents a Christmas banquet at which are displayed, along with “brawn and beef, and stout home brewed,” all the archaic customs of the season, including a wassail bowl, a Lord of Misrule, and a group of peasants—the old squire’s trusty dependents—who perform an old dance and then mingle gratefully with the squire’s household:

There is something genuine and affectionate in the gayety of the lower orders, when it is excited by the bounty and familiarity of those above them; the warm glow of gratitude enters into their mirth, and a kind word, and a small pleasantry frankly uttered by a patron, gladdens the heart of the dependent more than oil and wine.

It is, of course, an invention—“the invention of tradition,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has dubbed this kind of self-conscious re-creation of ostensibly old-time customs26—and Irving knows that. In fact, he not only knows it, he even takes pains to let us in on the secret. The narrator’s description of the squire’s Christmas celebration is larded with such terms as “odd and obsolete,” “quaint,” “ancient,” even “eccentric,” and in a later edition of The Sketch Book Irving admitted that at the time he wrote the “Bracebridge Hall” stories he had never actually seen the kind of Christmas he described in it. Even the Lord of Misrule is fictive: The role is taken by a real gentleman.

Nor is this all. As Squire Bracebridge drives home from church just before his great dinner party, he engages in a bit of nostalgic commentary.

He begins by lamenting

the deplorable decay of the games and amusements which were once prevalent at this season among the lower orders, and countenanced by the higher. When the old halls of castles and manor houses were thrown open at daylight;… and when rich and poor were alike welcome to enter and make merry.

As the squire continues, his nostalgia spills over into a confession of his inability to re-create the genuine rituals of Christmases past. And at precisely this moment, he moves from antiquarianism into political theory—Tory political theory:

“The nation,” continued he, “is altered; we have almost lost our simple true-hearted peasantry. They have broken asunder from the higher classes, and seem to think their interests are separate. They have become too knowing, and begin to read newspapers, listen to ale house politicians, and talk of reform. I think one mode to keep them in good humor in these hard times, would be for the nobility and gentry to pass more time on their estates, mingle more among the country people, and set the merry old English games going again.”

At this point Irving’s own narrative voice takes over from Squire Bracebridge’s. “Such,” Irving continues, “was the good Squire’s project for mitigating public discontent; and, indeed, he had once attempted to put his doctrine in[to] practice, and a few years before had kept open house during the holidays in the old style” [emphasis added]. But the open-house experiment failed:

The country people … did not understand how to play their parts in the scene of hospitality: many uncouth circumstances occurred [these Irving does not choose to describe]; the manor was overrun by all the vagrants of the country, and more beggars [were] drawn into the neighborhood in one week than the parish officers could get rid of in a year.

So the squire was forced to back off his original project. Nowadays, Irving tells us, he “contented himself with inviting the decent part of the neighboring peasantry to call at the hall on Christmas day” [emphasis added]. It is that select group, rather than the entire neighborhood, that cornes to Bracebridge Hall (at the stipulated time) to entertain and mingle with the squire’s real guests.

But so self-conscious is this scene—so close to the edge of silliness—that Irving himself suspected it might ring false to contemporary readers. For as the squire” mingled among the rustics, and was “received with awkward demonstrations of deference and regard,” Irving’s narrator observes (and reports to us) something that escapes the notice of his host: “I perceived two or three of the younger peasants, as they were raising their tankards to their mouths, when the Squire’s back was turned, making something of a grimace, and giving each other the wink, but the moment they caught my eye they pulled grave faces, and were exceedingly demure.” Irving surely wrote this little scene to protect his credibility with an 1820 audience, and his meaning would have been clear enough to the knowing reader: Despite all the precautions Squire Bracebridge had taken to do the job right, he had been unable to keep even the “decent part” of the local peasantry in “good humor” on Christmas Day.

The “Bracebridge Hall” stories were immensely popular, and they played an important part in restoring the interest of “respectable” Americans (and Britishers) in celebrating Christmas. Indeed, it was these sketches, together with the stories of Charles Dickens, that provided much of what a recent book terms the “enduring imagery of Christmas which is annually reiterated in Christmas cards and festive illustrations, where jovial squires entertain friends and retainers by roaring fires, and stout coachmen, swathed in greatcoats, urge horses down snow-covered lanes as they bring anticipatory guests and homesick relations to their welcoming destinations.”27

When the “Bracebridge Hall” stories were published in 1819, they set off something of a debate about whether reviving the old rural Christmas rituals would be enough to restore the fading authority of the English gentry. The issues were understood in just these terms. One essay, published in 1825, summarized them by asserting bluntly “that the merrymakings of the times of Elizabeth and the Stuarts originated solely in an instinctive [i.e., paternalist] understanding between master and man; that the rich encouraged them [i.e., the merrymakings] as a means of patronage and superiority, and that the poor accepted them as an oil to their chain, or a happy rivet of their dependence.” On those points, the essay argued, conservatives and reformers agreed. Where they differed was in their response: Conservatives believed “that the old times were the best because they were least free;” while reformers argued “that a merry season is dearly purchased by servility all the rest of the year.”

This particular writer (he remains anonymous) was a skeptic. He maintained that a revival of the old rituals was unlikely to have any effect, simply because the times themselves had changed. In former days, when “people believed any thing because a magistrate set his hand to it, the case was different;”

but now-a-days, bring rich and poor together as we please, roast as many oxen as there are villages to do it in, and let one general wassail-bowl set the hearts of great and small dancing all over England; and [still,] as long as there are Mechanics’ Magazines [i.e., to educate the poor] …, there is no fear that people will be too thankful for a sirloin of beef, or melt with maudlin souls into the overflow of a beer barrel. There is, in fact, no necessity for [their] accepting either.

“Sports may be revived,” this man concluded; “wassail bowls may abound; the poor may cultivate their strength and spirits with gymnastic exercise, and the rich assuredly be no nearer an undue influence.”28

In any event, Washington Irving’s vision of Christmas did not exactly offer a practical model for anyone who was tempted—and many must have been—to celebrate Christmas in this fashion. How could John Pintard, say, reproduce a ritual that Washington Irving himself found it difficult even to imagine for his readers? It is easy to sympathize with Pintard, who almost certainly read The Sketch Book and felt the power of Irvings vision. But it was easier for Irving to imagine such a scene than for John Pintard to duplicate it, even though it may have been the “Bracebridge Hall” stories that inspired—and finally frustrated—Pintard’s elaborate efforts during the 1820s to re-create an old-time New Year’s Day. Pintard would not be satisfied until he discovered what had happened, in the hands of his friend Clement Clarke Moore, to a figure that he himself had originally introduced—that is, of course, the figure of St. Nicholas.

As LATE AS 1826, Pintard did not associate Christmas itself with St. Nicholas (or with anything at all except attending church and what Pintard termed “solemni[ty]” and “devotional feelings”). Pintard went to church on Christmas in 1827, too; but there was something new that year: “We had St. Claas in high snuff,” Pintard noted, and he referred briefly to the “bon bons” his grandchildren had received. The following year, 1828, Pintard’s description was more elaborate:

All due preparations having been made by the children the preceding evening, by placing hay for his horses [!] and invoking “St. Claas, Gude Heylig Man,” he came accordingly during the night, with most elegant toys, bon bons, oranges, etc., all which, after rilling the stockings suspended at the sides of mother’s chimney, were displayed in goodly order on the mantle, to the ecstatic joy of [the children] in the morning, whose exhaltations resounded through the house.29

Pintard’s letters from each of the years 1830 through 1832 contain descriptions that were at least as extensive as this one. By 1831 he characteristically referred to the ritual as an “ancient usage,” adding that “St. Claas is too firmly riveted in this city ever to be forgotten.” And in 1832 Pintard concluded a very lengthy account of the children’s reactions to Santa’s visit with these words: “Happy golden age. All was joy and gladness.”30 That was all there would be; Pintard lived for another dozen years (dying at age 85), but he was becoming blind and seems to have stopped writing letters.

DURING THE TWO DECADES from 1810 to 1830, while Pintard shifted his energies from December 6 to January 1, then from January 1 to December 25, this much remained constant: The season was to be celebrated with members of his own social class. But one thing had changed nevertheless, and it was more important than the simple date of the celebration. Pintard had gradually moved from a celebration that took place in public (first at City Hall, with the New-York Historical Society, then on the city streets and in the houses of kinsmen and old acquaintances) to one that took place in private, in his own home, with his immediate family. Just as important, the new celebration focused on a single group within the family: young children.

In a very important way, such a child-centered event was a new thing. Before the nineteenth century children were merely dependents—miniature adults who occupied the bottom of the hierarchy within the family, along with the servants. But perhaps that was exactly the point, because in another way this was a very old thing. Making children the center of joyous attention marked an inversion of the social hierarchy, which meant that a part of the structure of an older Christmas ritual was being precisely preserved:People in positions of social and economic authority were offering gifts to their dependents. The ritual of social inversion was still there, but now it was based on age and family status alone. Age had replaced social class as the axis along which gifts were given at Christmas. The children of a single household had replaced a larger group of the poor and powerless as the symbolic objects of charity and benevolence. It was those children who became the temporary centers of attention and deference at Christmas, and the joy and gratitude on their faces and in their voices as they opened their presents was a vivid re-creation of the exchange of gifts for goodwill that had long constituted the emotional heart of the Christmas season.

It was just such an exchange that Washington Irving had evoked in “Bracebridge Hall” when he insisted that “there is something genuine and affectionate in the gayety of the lower orders, when it is excited by the bounty and familiarity of those above them; [how] the warm glow of gratitude enters into their mirth, and a kind word, and a small pleasantry frankly uttered by a patron, gladdens the heart of the dependent more than oil and wine.” During the 1820s such an exchange had particular appeal for the urban upper classes, precisely because they were still residually sensitive to the need to demonstrate noblesse, especially during the Christmas season. But Irving, who continued to place the patron-client exchange in the older context of social class, was able to imagine it only with difficulty. Clement Moore, by translating the patron-client exchange from one between the classes to one between the generations, helped to transform it into a practical, simple ritual that almost any household could perform. And eventually, as we know only too well, almost every household would.

NOWADAYS many Americans believe, as I did until recently, that there was nothing new about “the night before Christmas” described in Moores poem—that the story it told was simply an old Dutch tradition brought to the New World in the seventeenth century and then, in the natural course of things, gradually Americanized. That is just what John Pintard would wish us to believe (and he may even have believed it himself).

But the preeminent scholar of St. Nicholas in our own day has shown that this could not have been the case. In an article published in 1954, Charles W. Jones argued forcefully that “there is no evidence that [the cult of Santa Claus] existed in New Amsterdam, or for [more than] a century after British occupation.” Jones pointed out that nobody has ever found any contemporaneous evidence of such a St. Nicholas cult in New York during the colonial period.31 Instead, the familiar Santa Claus story appears to have been devised in the early nineteenth century, during the two decades that ended in the early 1820s. It seems likely that a similar ritual, along with others, was practiced in parts of Holland during the mid-seventeenth century, on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6. But Charles Jones makes a compelling case that this ritual did not cross the Atlantic, and that the Santa Claus who was devised in early-nineteenth-century New York was therefore a conscious reconstruction of that Dutch ritual—an invented tradition.

This does not mean that “the night before Christmas” belongs to Clement Moore alone. In fact, it was the work of a small group of antiquarian-minded New York gentlemen—men who knew one another and were members of a distinct social set. Collectively, those men became known as the Knickerbockers; the name comes from an immensely popular book published in 1809 by the best-known member of the group, Washington Irving. Irvings book, commonly known as Knickerbocker’s History of New York, was a brilliantly satirical allegory about life in the contemporary city that the author lived in, but it was written in the guise of a history of New Amsterdam in old Dutch times. Irving himself mentioned St. Nicholas twenty-five times in Knickerbockers History, including references to the saint’s wagon, his pipe (more of that later), and a line that read: “laying his finger beside his nose.” Irving even chose to have Knickerbockers History published on St. Nicholas’ Day. If it was John Pintard who introduced the figure of St. Nicholas, it was Washington Irving who popularized it. In the words of Charles W. Jones, “Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus…. Santa Claus was made by Washington Irving.”32*

The Knickerbocker set inhabited a special niche in the world of early-nineteenth-century New York. As a rule, its members were of British, not Dutch, descent. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, and, more particularly, to its ritually inclined High Church faction. They were part of the wealthy old aristocracy of the city (or at least they identified with it). And they were politically conservative, reactionary even—opposed to democracy (which they identified with mob rule) and fearful of both the working class and the new bourgeoisie. Indeed, they often failed to distinguish between these two groups, sometimes lumping them together with the general, yet quite telling, word plebeian.

For example, in his Knickerbockers History, Washington Irving disdainfully summarized in a single sentence an episode that clearly represented to his readers the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800: “[J]ust about this time the mob, since called the sovereign people … exhibited a strange desire of governing itself.”33 And in 1822 (the year “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared), John Pintard explained to his daughter just why he was opposed to the new state constitution adopted that year, a constitution that gave men without property the right to vote: “All power,” Pintard wrote, “is to be given, by the right of universal suffrage, to a mass of people, especially in this city, which has no stake in society. It is easier to raise a mob than to quell it, and we shall hereafter be governed by rank democracy…. Alas that the proud state of New York should be engulfed in the abyss of ruin.”34

In short, the Knickerbockers felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York. The best-known literary expression of this larger enterprise is Irving’s classic story “Rip Van Winkle” (published a full decade after Knickerbockers History). But in the History, too, Irving pictured old New Amsterdam as a place of “filial piety” in which people thought and acted “with characteristic slowness and circumspection …; who adhere … to the customs … of their revered forefathers.” New Amsterdam was a serene place in which people (watched over by good St. Nicholas himself) “did not regulate their time by hours, but by [the smoking of] pipes.”35


Which finally brings me to Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” If we have any image of the man at all, it is apt to be of a benevolent figure, a scholarly but genial professor of Hebrew who stepped, just this once, out of his ivory tower to write, for his own children, those magical verses about what happened on “the night before Christmas.” He is a man who would appear to be as distant from the wider currents of history and politics as the figure of Santa Claus himself.

Clement Clarke Moore. This woodcut was made from one of the four portraits painted of Moore at different stages of his life. Good oil portraits were expensive, and only wealthy people could afford even one. This is from the last of Moore’s four portraits, done around 1850, almost thirty years after the writing of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” (Courtesy, Harvard College Library)

The image is not particularly misleading, and it is not my intention to dispel it. Still, Moore did have a real existence. He was born in 1779 (during the American Revolution) and died eighty-four years later, in 1863 (during the Civil War). And he fits perfectly the Knickerbocker mold: High Church Episcopalian, politically conservative, and quintessentially upper-class. Moore’s father was for thirty-five years Episcopal bishop of the diocese of New York, and Moore himself, though a layman, was an active and influential figure in the Church. (In fact, Moore held his professorship in a seminary that he himself had helped to establish.)

Moore was also conservative. His parents and grandparents had been closet Tories during the American Revolution—and open Federalists afterward. Moore’s own brand of conservatism took the form of an agrarian paternalism not far removed from that of a wealthy Virginia planter of the same generation. As a young man, Clement Moore himself published a series of tracts attacking both Jeffersonian radicalism and urban commerce, and to the end of his life he remained suspicious of democracy and other “reforms.” For example, in middle age he opposed the movement to abolish slavery. Indeed, at the time Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in 1822, he himself owned five slaves.36

Moore’s ideology was well suited to his social position. He was an old-style country gentleman, a patrician man of leisure who inherited so much land (and the income it brought) that he never needed to take a job. Moore accepted his professorship when he was past 40, and for a token salary, in a seminary constructed on land he himself had donated for the purpose.37 He inherited his mother’s large Manhattan estate, originally located well to the north of New York City. The estate, which bore the name Chelsea, extended all the way from what is now Nineteenth Street to Twenty-fourth Street, and from Eighth to Tenth Avenue. (This estate has given its name to the present-day Chelsea district of the city, just north of Greenwich Village.)

But when Moore was a young man this area was isolated and pastoral.38 John Pintard, who knew Moore well, wrote in 1830 that his Chelsea estate alone was worth $500,000. He also acknowledged Moore as his social superior, writing that even though he and Moore “have been always on the most friendly terms,… I have resisted all hospitalities when sitting in [his] elegantly furnished drawing room, for he is wealthy.”39

Still, Moore’s great wealth did not prove sufficient to insulate him from the pressures that transformed New York in the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1811, as already noted, the New York City council approved a grid system of numbered streets and avenues that would crisscross the island above Fourteenth Street. By the time Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” New York was expanding north through Chelsea itself. In fact, late in 1818 something called “Ninth Avenue” was dug right through the middle of his estate (the land having been taken from him by eminent domain).40 The 1821 city directory lists Moore as residing, not at Chelsea, but near the corner of Ninth Avenue and Twenty-first Street.41 Eleven years later, in 1832, John Pintard visited Chelsea and mused about the changes that had overtaken the neighborhood, filled now (as Pintard put it) with “streets that have become regularly built up … where, but a few years ago, all was open country. It really surprised me to notice a dense population and contiguous buildings in what only 10 years since was merely a sparse city.”42 By the 1850s the entire hill on which Moore’s house stood had been leveled to make new land and bulkheads along the Hudson River waterfront, and Moore had built new homes for himself and his family.43

Moore was disturbed by the transformation of his city, and the cutting-up of his estate. In 1818, the very year that his property was bisected by Ninth Avenue (and just four years before he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas”), Moore published a pamphlet that protested against the relentless development of New York. In it he expressed a fear that the city’s beauty and tranquillity would be lost forever, and that its future was already in what he termed “destructive and ruthless hands,” the hands of men who did not “respect the rights of property.” City politics and policy were controlled by men Moore described as “mechanics and persons whose influence is principally among those classes of the community to whom it is indifferent what the eventual result of their industry may be to society.” New York was being turned over to a conspiracy, and Moore named its members: “cartmen, carpenters, masons, pavers, and all their host of attendant laborers.” Moore doubted that the city could (as he put it) be “save[d] from ruin.” And he was pessimistic about the future of his class: “We know not the amount nor the extent of oppression which may yet be reserved for us.”44

Manhattan in 1778. When this map was drawn, New York City occupied only the lower tip of Manhattan (the shaded area at the bottom). The rest of the island was rural. Halfway up the map, on the left, is an estate labeled “Clarke”—the property of Thomas Clarke, Moore’s maternal grandfather. He called it Chelsea, after a district in London. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Manhattan in 1831. Now Moore’s Chelsea estate has been divided up into gridded urban terrain. Moore’s property, located near the lower right-hand corner of the map, extended from Eighth Avenue to Tenth Avenue, between Eighteenth and Twenty-fourth streets. (Note that on this map the more usual north-south orientation has been reversed; the southern part of the island is at the top.) (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

1810 St. Nicholas. The broadside that John Pintard commissioned at his own expense, executed by the noted illustrator Alexander Anderson. In the right-hand panel are two children: a pleased little girl who has received a present and a tearful little boy who has not (perhaps he has received a caning instead). John Pintard confirmed the reverential image in a short poem placed beneath the picture: a child’s poem that begins with the words “Saint Nicholas, good holy man” and concludes: “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.” (Courtesy, The New-York Historical Society)


It was at this difficult juncture, in 1822, that Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” As we already know, Moore did not invent “the night before Christmas” out of whole cloth. In the distant background was the old Dutch ritual, and John Pintard and Washington Irving offered more immediate models. In addition, three other poems, two from 1810 and the third from 1821, would provide more materials—for example, Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, and even the poetic meter that Moore would employ. Moore’s own contributions may have been small, but they were crucial to the creation of a myth that suited the needs of his own Knickerbocker set—and that finally proved malleable enough to transcend those needs and to be appropriated by other groups of Americans. It is time to examine more closely the sources Moore had at his disposal.

First: Washington Irving. Yes, there were twenty-five references to St. Nicholas in Knickerbockers History. But Irving represented St. Nicholas not as a figure who appeared during the Christmas season but rather in the way that John Pintard had originally introduced him to the New-York Historical Society—that is, as the mythic patron saint of New Amsterdam. Early in Knickerbockers History, Irving wrote that “the great and good St. Nicholas … took … New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage, and has ever since been … the titular saint of this excellent city.” In this role St. Nicholas (he never actually appears, except once in a dream scene and, again, as the wooden figurehead on a ship) was essentially an amusing caricature of the old-time Dutch gentry who inhabited Irving’s imaginary New Amsterdam: a genial yet obviously patrician saint, dressed in a broad hat and invariably smoking a long pipe.45 (Moore would later pick that up, but with one difference.)

Next: The 1810 broadside picture that John Pintard commissioned—together with the verse that accompanied it—also influenced Moore; then the two anonymous poems, one from 1810 and the other from 1821. In all of these writings the pipe disappeared, and so did the satire, but St. Nicholas himself finally became a figure who distributed gifts to children during the Christmas season. Still, in all these sources the saint was very much a figure of majesty and authority—or at least of benevolent, kindly dignity. (The real St. Nicholas, if he existed at all, was an actual bishop, and in any case he was an official saint—the real patron saint of both Russia and Greece.) As a bishop, St. Nicholas was the direct representative of God and a figure of great authority as well as great charity. So it is not surprising that John Pintard would wish him to be represented in such a “serious” fashion in the broadside he commissioned, and not (as Washington Irving had irreverently done) as a humorous figure.

In this illustration St. Nicholas has come not just to reward but also to punish. He is a figure of authority: We see him with his halo, ecclesiastical robes, and bishop’s scepter. St. Nicholas retained that air of authority in a poem that appeared in a New York newspaper just two weeks after Pintard’s broadside. This poem, essentially a longer, more elaborate version of Pintard’s, opens in a similar fashion, with a child hailing St. Nicholas—this time not in awkward iambic but in a more tripping meter—in fact, the exact meter that Moore would employ twelve years later, anapestic tetrameter. It opens: “Oh good holy man! whom we Sánete Claus name, / The Nursery forever your praise shall proclaim.” The poem goes on to catalogue the presents St. Nicholas might be expected to leave, followed by a “prayer” that St. Nicholas not come for the purpose of punishment (“[I] fin your hurry one thing you mislay, / Let that be the Rod—and oh! keep it away”) And it concludes with a promise of future good 'text-align:justify;line-height:14.4pt'>Then holy St. Nicholas! all the year,

Our books we will love and our parents revere,

From naughty behavior we’ll always refrain,

In hopes that you’ll come and reward us again.

The pattern of authority and judgment holds even in the poem that was Clement Moore’s most immediate source. Published in 1821, only a year before Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” this poem appeared as a little illustrated book called The Children’s Friend. Here, for the first time, we even find St. Nicholas appearing not on December 6 but on Christmas Eve; and we also find him traveling on a sleigh that is pulled by a reindeer—a single reindeer. But he is still a bishop (a “child’s bishop,” perhaps), a figure who metes out punishments along with rewards, and whose visit is designed to inspire anxiety along with hope:

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night,

O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,

The friend of duty, and of truth,

Each Christmas eve he joys to come

Where love and peace have made their home.

Through many houses he has been,

And various beds and stockings seen,

Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,

Others, that seem’d for pigs intended.

Where e’er I found good girls or boys,

That hated quarrels, strife and noise,

I left an apple, or a tart,

Or wooden gun, or painted cart;

To some I gave a pretty doll,

To some a peg-top, or a ball;

No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,

To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,

Nor swords to make their sisters fear;

But pretty books to store their mind.

With Knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,

In manners rude, in temper haughty,

Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,

Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,

Such, as the dread command of GOD

Directs a Parent’s hand to use

When virtue’s path his sons refuse.46

This kind of Christmas can be thought of as a mini-version of the Day of Judgment. Insofar as the history of gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day can be traced to Europe, it is this kind of judgmental ritual that seems to have been involved. It can be seen in a seventeenth-century painting, St. Nicholas’s Day, by the Dutch painter Jan Steen, in which there appear both presents and punishments. Even today, something of this notion still lingers in the American celebration of Christmas, as, for example, in the song that begins “You’d better watch out… Santa Claus is coming to town,” and continues: “He knows if you’ve been sleeping, he knows if you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good—so be good for goodness’ sake!”

1821 St. Nicholas (from The Children’s Friend). This St. Nicholas is more benevolent-looking than John Pintard’s (and the label “Sante Claus” appears at the base of his hat), but he still holds a bishop’s scepter. Each verse of this charming book was similarly accompanied by an illustration—in color. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

To be sure, this kind of Christmas ritual was designed largely for children, while Judgment Day was for adults. Christmas took place once a year, Judgment Day once an eternity. The “judge” at Christmas was St. Nicholas; on Judgment Day it was God himself. And both the rewards and the punishments meted out on Christmas—a cookie on the one hand, or a birch rod on the other—were far less weighty than those of eternal joy or eternal damnation. But the parallel was always there, and always meant to be there. Christmas was a child’s version of Judgment Day, and its ambiguous prospects of reward or punishment (like those of Judgment Day itself) were a means of regulating children’s behavior—and preparing them for the greater judgment that was to come. Indeed, The Children’s

Jan Steen, “Hes feest van Saint Nicholaas” (1666). Note the smiling little girl holding her present in the foreground and the tearful boy on the left—he is being mocked by the other children. The girl’s present is a doll that represents one of the saints, which suggests that this prosperous family is Roman Catholic. The St. Nicholas ritual did not cross the Atlantic; one reason may have been that it was performed by Holland’s Catholic community, while the Dutch immigration to New Netherlands was largely Protestant—and Dutch Protestants, much like the English Puritans, tried to suppress such practices as the celebration of saints’ days (as well as the use of icons like the little girl’s present). (Courtesy, Rijksmuseum-Stichting, Amsterdam)

Friend even speaks of the birch rod as a product of “the dread command of GOD.”


The threat of judgment was gone the next year, when Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore’s St. Nicholas, as we all know, leaves only presents and goodwill, and he makes no threats—not even gentle ones. There is no warning of the birch rod, no hints about messy rooms or bad behavior. There is no stick to join the carrot. There is no little Day of Judgment. There is only a “happy Christmas to all.”

This shift is all the more striking because the structure of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (unlike that of its immediate sources) parallels the structure of a seventeenth-century American poem about the real Judgment Day. That poem, written by Massachusetts clergyman Michael Wigglesworth, was published in 1662 with the title “The Day of Doom.” It was nearly as popular in its own time as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is today, and it retained its popularity into the early nineteenth century.

Both poems begin with a scene in which people are sleeping serenely on a still night, dreaming of good things to come. It is “the night before Christmas” in the one case, “the evening before [Doomsday]” in the other:

Still was the night, Serene and Bright, when all Men sleeping lay;

Calm was the season, and carnal reason thought so ’twould last for ay.

Soul, take thine ease, let sorrow cease, much good thou hast in store:

This was their Song … the Evening before.

Virgins unwise … had closed their eyes …

Yea, and the wise through sloth and frailty slumbered.

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads;

And mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Then, suddenly, the slumbering calm is shattered by a sound that rouses the sleepers, causing them to leap out of bed and run to the window:

For at midnight brake forth a Light, which turn’d the night to day,

And speedily an hideous cry did all the world dismay.

Sinners awake, their hearts do ache, trembling their loins surprizeth;

Amazed with fear, by what they hear each one of them ariseth.

They rush from Beds with giddy heads, and to their windows run,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

At the window they witness the arrival through the air of an unexpected supernatural visitor, accompanied by other magical creatures:

Viewing this light, which shines more bright than doth the Noonday Sun.

Straightway appears (they see’t with tears) the Son of God most dread;

Who with his Train comes on amain to Judge both Quick and Dead.

His winged Hosts flie through all coasts, together gathering

Both good and bad, both quick and dead, and all to Judgment bring.

The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to objects below

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled and shouted and called them by name….

These parallels make the contrasts between the two poems all the more acute. In “The Day of Doom,” the supernatural visitor has come as a pitiless judge; he causes everyone to come before his “throne,” to separate those who can look forward to eternal happiness from those who are filled with the “dreadful expectation” of “endless pains and scalding flames.” In “A Visit from St. Nicholas” he is a jolly fellow who reassures his startled company that they have “nothing to dread,” and who departs from the house wishing happiness “to all.”

I am not sure whether Moore read “The Day of Doom.” But so close are the parallels between the two poems that it is difficult to avoid speculating that the one was written with the other somewhere in mind. If so, then “The Day of Doom” constitutes another source of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

What Moore has evoked, in any case, is Christmas without the prospect of judgment. Without such a prospect, St. Nicholas himself loses his authority—indeed, he loses his very identity as a bishop. And Moore’s lengthy physical description of St. Nicholas reinforces the point (such a description is not to be found in any of Moore’s sources, but here it takes up four of the poems fourteen stanzas): Santa’s eyes “twinkle,” his cheeks are “rosy,” his dimples “merry,” his mouth is “droll,” his figure “chubby and plump,” his manner “jolly.” He is tiny—the size of an “elf.” His appearance and manner actually cause the narrator to laugh out loud “in spite of [him]self.”

In every possible way, then, Moore’s St. Nicholas has lost his authority, his majesty, even his patrician dignity. He carries no bishop’s scepter. He is clothed not in a bishop’s red robes (despite the illustrations we may recall from modern editions of the poem) but in ordinary fur. This St. Nicholas is no bishop at all. He has effectively been defrocked.

But not only has Moore defrocked St. Nicholas, he has declassed him, too. It is not only his authority that has vanished; his gentility is gone as well. Consider how St. Nicholas is pictured in the first illustrated edition of Moore’s poem, dating from 1848 (and probably issued with Moore’s approval). He looks like a plebeian, and that’s also how he is described in the text. Remember that Moore says “he looked like a pedlar”—“a pedlar just opening his pack”—something, that is, between a beggar and a petty tradesman.


And he smokes “the stump of a pipe.” Now, that little detail comes directly from Washington Irving—and from none of Moore’s other sources. Irving invariably associated St. Nicholas with a pipe. But there was a difference: That pipe was always referred to as a long pipe (indeed, flamboyantly long—in Irvings word, a “mighty” pipe).

It is necessary to say something here about the history and politics of pipes, if only because Irving himself does so. Indeed, there is a chapter in Knickerbockers History that bears the title “Of the Pipe Plot.” This chapter has nothing to do with St. Nicholas; what it deals with is the moment at which New Amsterdam (that is, New York) was transformed from a community characterized by “ease, tranquillity, and sobriety of deportment” into “a meddlesome and factious” city. Irving associated this transformation with the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, the same political upheaval in which “the mob, since called the sovereign people … exhibited a strange desire of governing itself.” What happened, Irving reported, was that the citizens of New York organized themselves, for the first time, into two opposing parties. The terms Irving chose to identify these parties are intriguing: “[T]he more wealthy and important… formed a kind of aristocracy, which went by the appellation Long Pipes, while the lower orders … were branded with the plebeian name of Short Pipes.”47

Plebeian St. Nicholas. This illustration appeared in the first book-length edition of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published in 1848 under Moore’s name and almost certainly with his approval. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Long and Short Pipes. This engraving, used as the frontispiece to Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History, was drawn by the well-known American artist Washington Allston. The four men in front are gentlemen; three of them are smoking long pipes. The plebeian tavern-keeper standing at the far back is smoking a short pipe. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Clearly, Irving was suggesting that short pipes were associated with working-class radicalism in the early nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, his suggestion seems to have been accurate. A recent paper delivered by a historical archaeologist who has been studying artifacts from the boarding houses of the cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, bears the improbable subtitle “Clay Pipes and Class Consciousness.” It seems that by the early nineteenth century, gentlemen smoked long pipes (some as much as two feet in length) known as “aldermen” or “church warderis;” workers smoked short pipes (or “cuddies”). It was not from economic necessity—that is, because short pipes happened to be cheaper—that working-class men (and women) smoked them; rather, they did so as a public gesture of class identity. In fact, the archaeological evidence (in the form of numerous broken-off pipe stems) suggests that workers often purchased longer pipes and then proceeded immediately, before smoking them, to break off the stems. The evidence seems compelling: Few of the broken-off stems recovered from the Lowell mills bear any telltale tooth marks.48 Workers chose to smoke “the stump of a pipe.”

Which finally brings this excursion into literary history back into connection with social history, and the analysis of genteel mythology into connection with the social changes that helped to generate it. Remember what was actually happening in the streets of early-nineteenth-century New York during the Christmas season: the presence there of marauding bands of revelers who threatened peace and property, whose revelry often turned into riot, who used this annual opportunity to reclaim for themselves (if only symbolically) the fashionable residential territory that had recently become the private preserve of the well-to-do. Remember the example of John Pintard’s unsettling experience on New Year’s Eve in 1821, when he was kept awake until dawn by the noise of a callithumpian band that stayed outside his door. Remember Clement Clarke Moore’s own anxiety, during the same period, over the slicing up of his pastoral estate into city streets for rapid development, the result of a plebeian conspiracy of artisans and laborers. Remember that Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822, when the streets had just been dug and the development begun.

Viewed from this angle, there is something resonant about the choices Moore made in writing his little poem. And especially about his decision to both “defrock” St. Nicholas and “declass” him, to take away his clerical authority and his patrician manner, and to represent him instead as a “plebeian.” Moore’s decision meant that his St. Nick resembles, after all, the kind of man who might have come to visit a wealthy New York patrician on Christmas Eve—to startle him out of his slumber with a loud “clatter” outside his door, perhaps even to enter his house, uninvited and unannounced.

But there was one dramatic difference: The working-class visitor feared by the patrician would come in a different way, for a different purpose. Such a visitor would have inhabited that murky ground between old-style village wassailing and the new urban political violence. He would have been youthful and full-sized, not a tiny “old elf.” He would very likely have been part of a roving gang (perhaps a callithumpian band), not a single individual. He would have come to make all the noise he could rather than to speak “not a word;” to demand satisfaction, not to give it; to harass or threaten his host, not to reassure him that he “had nothing to dread.” And, if he had finally departed in a genial spirit, wishing (in familiar wassail fashion) a “happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” it would have been because he had received satisfaction, not because he had offered it.

By contrast, the household visitor Moore portrays has come neither to threaten his genteel host nor to make any demands on his generosity. The narrator of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is openly fearful when St. Nicholas first appears, but his fears have been assuaged by the time St. Nicholas departs.

There is another real-life variation on this theme. The houses and shops of well-to-do men in large urban centers were guarded, as we have seen, by night watchmen, a kind of private police force. As it happens, these watchmen, like other menial workers of the period, took the Christmas season as a time to ask their wealthy patrons for tips. We know this because the watchmen’s ritual sometimes took the form of a printed broadside (much like the carriers’ addresses discussed in Chapter i). A few of these broadsides—watchman’s addresses, as they were known—have survived. All of them remind their wealthy readers of the sense of security their nocturnal vigilance has managed to provide, and all go on to beg a reward for their efforts. A particularly resonant watchman’s address was circulated in 1829 by the watchmen of the Philadelphia suburb of Southwark. Headed “Southwark Watchman’s Address for Christmas Day,” it went in part like this:

… [W]hile you’re reposing in sleep’s fond embrace,

Upon your rich soft downy bed,

The Watchman, who’s one of your own fellow race,

Sees clouds gathering thick o’er his head.

This doth not affright him, his pathway is clear,

To serve you, he’s ne’er seen to stray;

To shield you from danger, and guard you from fear,

Propels him alone on his way….

Watchman. The watchman is guarding a fenced-in New York estate at night. This illustration appeared in Cries of New-York, published in 1822, the same year that Clement Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and was the work of Alexander Anderson, the illustrator who also executed John Pintard’s 1810 St. Nicholas broadside. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

The ruffian at midnight is drove from your door,

By the watch that is faithful and true;

And this keeps in safety your house and your store;

To him, then, is gratitude due.

Here the watchman has reminded his patrons that he is protecting them in their “rich soft downy bed”—protecting them, indeed, from the “ruffian” who tries to enter in the middle of the night (and in the context of the Christmas season it is surely significant that the watchman has chosen to speak of a “ruffian” and not of a thief). He shields his prosperous patrons from danger and fear, to be sure. But he also makes demands of his own, demands that take the classic form of a wassail:

Now to close, he wishes you health, to fare well;

And your mite from him hope you won’t spare.49

On such occasions the watchman in effect turned the tables on his ordinary role, symbolically becoming the very personage from whom he is supposed to offer protection. As with any wassail there was always a veiled edge of threat behind the good wishes—and in this instance a miserly patron would surely be risking far more than a wet newspaper!

But if “A Visit from St. Nicholas” spoke to the physical fears of its upper-class readers, it also addressed their moral guilt. What it suggested was that Santa Claus was one Christmas visitor to whom the patron owed no obligations, not even tips. This visitor asks for nothing, and by implication his host owes him nothing—an important point, if one is willing to believe that even as late as the 1820s many patrician New Yorkers still felt a strong, if inchoate, obligation to be generous to the poor during the emotionally resonant holiday season.

If Moore’s upper-class readers were to be comfortable at Christmastime, they needed to have at their disposal a class of dependents whose palpable expressions of goodwill would assure them that they had fulfilled their obligations after all. They did this in part by substituting their own children for the needy and homeless outside their household. In that way, as we have seen, they managed to preserve the structure of an older Christmas ritual, in which people occupying positions of social and economic authority offered gifts to their dependents. The children in their own households had replaced the poor outside it as the symbolic objects of charity and deference, and the gratitude those children displayed at present-opening time was a re-creation of the old Christmas exchange—gifts for goodwill. The ritual of social inversion was still there, but it now remained securely within the household.

Still, that change could easily have been implemented without transforming St. Nicholas from a bishop and a patrician into a plebeian (indeed, it could have been achieved without introducing St. Nicholas into the picture at all). By representing him as a plebeian, Moore allowed something else to happen, and it’s a fascinating transformation. Without losing his role as the bringer of gifts, St. Nicholas has taken on an additional function: that of a grateful, nonthreatening old-style dependent. In the first of these roles (as gift-bringer), St. Nicholas is purely imaginary—a fiction devised for children, a private joke among adults (more about that in a moment). In the second role (as grateful dependent), he is imaginary in a different way, and only in part—a fiction devised for adults, and hardly as a joke; and imaginary only to the degree that, say, the old Dutch yeomanry nostalgically described by Washington Irving in “Rip Van Winkle” or Knickerbockers History were imaginary, or the loyal peasants that Irving presented in his “Bracebridge Hall” stories. Like those fictional characters, Moore’s St. Nicholas may not have existed; but (in this second role) he, too, was based on a real-life prototype that meant a great deal to the upper-class New Yorkers who very much wished to believe that he did still exist.

In this way, Moore managed to evoke what had eluded his fellow Knickerbockers, Washington Irving and John Pintard, in their own efforts to recapture the spirit of Christmas past: that is, the integration of the social classes in a scene of shared festivity where the poor posed no threat and gratefully accepted their place. Moore did this by replacing the cheerful poor of cherished memory not just with the children of the household but also with the magical figure of St. Nicholas himself. With this tricky maneuver Moore managed to transform what had been merely archaic and sentimental (and also patronizing to the poor) into something that can be called mythic.

In order to negotiate that transformation, to create that myth, Moore had to make the two simple yet crucial changes I have described: He had to present St. Nicholas as a figure who would evoke in his hearers and readers a working-class image (and not a patrician one) and also as a figure who would act the patrician’s part (and not the worker’s). He had to present St. Nicholas in the role of a bishop, but without a bishop’s authority to stand in judgment. In short, Moore had to present St. Nicholas as both a bishop and a worker—but without either the power of the one or the animosity of the other.

He had to devote fully one-third of his poem to offering the reassurance that the people who received visits from this figure of the night would have “nothing to dread.” St. Nicholas first offers that reassurance by giving “a wink of his eye and a twist of his head.” And a little later, when he has filled all the stockings and is about to depart, he turns abruptly to face the narrator—the head of the household, or, in other words, us, the reader—and places his finger “aside of his nose.” This is a meaningless phrase today, but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the gesture seems to have represented the equivalent of a secret wink—a visual way of saying something like “Shh! I’m only kidding” or “Let’s keep it between the two of us.”50 In the illustration, the man seated on the left is making this very gesture to the man on the right, who is laughing so hard at the other man’s joke that he has dropped his long pipe. In fact, the source of Santa’s gesture in “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was a passage in Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History, a passage in which St. Nicholas appears in a dream to a character named Van Kortland. The dream concludes with these words: “And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortland a very significant look, then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared” [italics added]. Since Moore was obviously alluding to this very passage, St. Nicholas’ gesture in his poem, too, can be understood as a signal to the narrator (and to all adult readers of the poem): This is all a dream. As if to say: “We know I don’t exist, but let’s keep that between you and me!”

1863 Santa. In this, the first of many pictures of Santa Claus drawn by noted American cartoonist Thomas Nast, Santa still looks rather plebeian, and he is smoking a short pipe. (Courtesy, Harvard College Library)

1881 Santa. Thomas Nast drew this, his most famous Santa Claus picture, in 1881. Now Santa is holding a very long pipe, and he has grown fat and avuncular—imagine this Santa trying to fit into a chimney! This is pretty much the way Santa Claus has remained to the present day. (Courtesy, Harvard College Library)


All a dream. For the upper-class New Yorkers who collectively “invented” Christmas, Moore’s quiet little achievement was especially resonant. It offered a Christmas scenario that took a familiar ritual (the exchange of generosity for goodwill) and transfigured it with a symbolic promise to release them from both the fear of harm and the pressure of guilt. A generation earlier, one might argue, the parents of these men were sufficiently in control of their social world not to require such a catharsis. A generation later their children were sufficiently purged of a sense of direct social obligation not to require it any longer.

By then, in any case, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” would be taking on new meanings. Santa Claus himself would lose his plebeian character as time passed, and as the poem (and the new kind of holiday it helped create) was taken over by the middle classes and even by the poor themselves. In the years to come, even the visual image of Santa Claus would change. Still “plebeian” in the 1840s, Santa and his “team” soon cease to be portrayed as a miniature (“eight tiny reindeer,” a “miniature sleigh,” and a “jolly old elf”). He becomes full-sized, even large. His beard turns into the full gray beard of the late-Victorian bourgeoisie. He appears increasingly avuncular. And, in the hands of Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist who was responsible for much of this change, over a period of eighteen years even his pipe grows long once again. Still, for all these changes, Santa Claus recovers none of the episcopal dignity that Clement Moore took from him in 1822. Between being a jolly plebeian elf and a jolly fat uncle, the real St. Nicholas would surely have found it difficult to choose.

The versatile saint would be put to other uses, too. The late nineteenth century was a period of vexing religious doubt for many middle-class Americans, and one characteristic solution was to think that God must exist simply because people so badly needed Him to; without God, human life would be simply unendurable. It should not be too surprising that this rather elegiac Victorian argument came to be applied to Santa Claus as well: In 1897, in reply to an inquiry posed by a young reader whose “little friends” had told her that Santa Claus did not exist, the New York Sun printed what was destined to become a classic editorial. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the editorial began. It was written by the newspaper’s religious-affairs reporter, and its language and tone selfconsciously mirror that of late-Victorian popular theology. “Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” the reporter insisted, explaining that “[t]hey have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” And he went on to stake out terrain that many of his adult readers would have found familiar from sermons they heard in church: “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus,” the reporter argued. “There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.” And he concluded: “No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives and he lives forever.”51

CLEMENT MOORE WROTE “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on what might be called the cusp of his life. The expansion of New York affected him in a direct way, breaking up his estate into city blocks. Before around 1820 he viewed this change as a threat, and protested it accordingly. But thereafter Moore adopted a different strategy. He stopped protesting the new conditions and began instead to protect his economic and social position by systematically controlling the development of the Chelsea district. As early as 1818, he donated an entire city block adjacent to his own house for the construction of an Episcopal theological seminary (the institution in which he later became a professor of Hebrew and ancient languages). And he gave another large parcel for a new and very elegant Episcopal church, St. Peters.52 By doing this, Moore was able to protect the value of his remaining holdings in Chelsea. And during the following years he consciously controlled the development of those holdings, by leasing lots rather than selling them and by including restrictive covenants in the deeds he gave to builders.53 Under Moore’s careful direction, Chelsea became for a time a fashionable district, an oasis of respectability on New York’s West Side.

As a great Manhattan landowner, Clement Moore played a part in the emergence of a new urban landscape, a landscape that stratified and segregated the city by wealth and class, and in which housing itself became a commodity.54 What I have tried to suggest in this chapter is less easy to prove: that Moore helped to bring about a parallel change on the American cultural landscape, in the role for which he is best known to most Americans today—as the poet of Christmas Eve. If such a reading is correct, it was thatwhich constituted his most important contribution to the history of American capitalism.

* A fascinating equivalent to the Knickerbockers’ invention of Santa Claus (and all in the guise of continuing a venerated old tradition) is to be found in an unlikely arena: the early history of the game of baseball. The American national pastime, like the American Christmas, was invented in New York—and less than a generation later. Astonishingly, the earliest extant description of a baseball match, in a press account dating from 1845, referred to this newly devised sport as a “time-honored game”! But a clue that may help explain that phrase is to be found in the name of the best-known baseball club from this early period of the sport: formed in 1846, this New York team was known as the “Knickerbockers.” (The account of the 1845 match, printed in the New York Morning News, was unearthed only in 1990; it antedates by one year the earliest previously known report of a baseball game. The discovery was a front-page story in the New York Times, October 4, 1990.)

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