Saint Nicholas (the patron saint of -- among other things -- sailors, repentant thieves, brewers, and pawnbrokers) was purportedly born on March 15 in the year 270 CE. Of course, what Saint Nicholas is most famous for these days is as the basis for our modern-day Santa Claus, a Dutch tradition that was popularized in New York City by its Dutch-American inhabitants, including poet Clement Clarke Moore.
'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.
Those immortal words, first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, have become a central part of the American Christmas story. They were penned by Moore, a prominent New Yorker; together with Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa later in the century (such as the 1881 version pictured here), Moore's poem helped shaped our modern ideas of Santa Claus.
Moore was a major landowner and important to the growth of both Greenwich Village and Chelsea. As we write in Footprints in New York:
To his contemporaries, Moore was best known as a Greek language scholar at the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and for his vast farm, Chelsea, which gave rise to the neighborhood of the same name. Today, people recognize him as the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the well-known poem that imbued the American Santa Claus with a healthy dose of his mother’s family’s Dutch traditions.In Inside the Apple, we note that
Moore was descended from distinguished New York families: his large family estate, Chelsea, which gave rise to the modern-day neighborhood, had originally been owned by his grandfather, Major Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and twice president of Columbia College.
In 1817, soon after Bishop Moore’s death, the Episcopal Church convened in New York to establish the General Theological Seminary. Jacob Sherred, a member of the Trinity Church vestry, donated $70,000 and Clement Clarke Moore agreed to donate 66 lots from his Chelsea estate to house the school. (The seminary met elsewhere until construction could begin in the 1820s.) Moore, already the author of a well-regarded Hebrew lexicon, was also hired to serve on its faculty, teaching Biblical languages until 1850.Thomas Nast, meanwhile, is probably best remembered today for his role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed through his political cartoons in The New York Times and Harper's Weekly. Nast's poison pen was so famous, in fact, that there's a folk etymology that the word "nasty" comes from his name. That's not true, but it gives a sense of how damning his pictures could be.
Nast is also the person who gave us the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats. In an 1870 issue of Harper's Weekly, Nast launched the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic party. In the cartoon, Nast was lambasting the Copperhead faction of the party -- which had opposed the Civil War -- and those Democratic papers that continued to criticize Lincoln's recently deceased Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast's critique is not terribly subtle: Stanton is "lionized" by the cartoonist and the Democrats are branded jackasses.
Despite Nast's pointed political statements, he had a soft spot for the holidays. Beginning in 1863, he would draw pictures of Santa Claus or families celebrating together for Harper's, culminating in 1881 with the image at the top of this post, which is still seen by many as the iconic depiction of St. Nick.
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