Culture  /  Origin Story

In the 1800s, a Group of NYC Artists and Writers Created the Modern-Day Santa Claus

See how Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast made Santa the merriest man in Manhattan.

Saint Nicholas arrived in New York with the Dutch and became the Patron Saint of New York City in the early 19th century, but Santa, as we know him, is a hometown boy. New York’s writers and artists were the first to depict the modern Santa Claus, transforming the figure of Dutch lore into a cheerful holiday hero. The illustrious Claus gained his sleigh in Chelsea and his red suit on Franklin Square. With a little help from the likes of Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and Thomas Nast, jolly old St. Nick became the merriest man in Manhattan.

Print of St Nicholas by John Pintard (1810); courtesy of the New-York Historical Society via Wikimedia 

In 18th-century New York, Santa was, first and foremost, a revolutionary. At that time, Claus was held up as a hero by John Pintard, founder of the New-York Historical Society. Pintard was a patriot who served in the Revolution and was good friends with George Washington. Accordingly, he became interested in New York’s Dutch history as a matter of anti-British sentiment: Because Saint Nicholas was revered in the Netherlands as the Patron Saint of Children, Pintard considered him to be a worthy anti-British symbol and meaningful link to New York’s Dutch past.

Pintard lobbied to have St. Nick formally declared Patron Saint of New York City, and in the early 1800s, he began to celebrate the festival of Saint Nicholas at the New-York Historical Society. In 1810, prominent New Yorkers gathered at NYHS on December 6, the saint’s feast day, to toast “Sancte Claus.” Many New Yorkers, including the writer Washington Irving, got caught up in the festivities surrounding Saint Nick.

Irving established the legend of St. Nick in New York, as well as the legend of Knickerbockers. A Knickerbocker is defined as “a descendant of the early Dutch settlers of New York; broadly: a native or resident of the city or state of New York —used as a nickname.” But, it wasn’t the Dutch in New Amsterdam who proudly referred to themselves and their progeny as “genuine Knickerbockers,” it was Washington Irving.