Santa Claus was born in New York, or at least the modern version of him as a rotund red-suited man bearing gifts. He’s from Chelsea, according to a New York Historical Society exhibit.
That’s where Clement Clarke Moore, a theologian and scholar, is believed to have written “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1821, now known by its opening line: “Twas the night before Christmas.”
Why wasn’t the saintly European version sufficient for New Yorkers? “Christmas time in big cities like New York at the end of the 18th century were pretty wild times,” the show’s curator Jean Ashton explained. “It was cold and dark. People weren’t working. The slaves — and there were a lot of slaves in New York — were traditionally given off at Christmas. There was a lot of dancing and drunkenness in the streets.”
City conservatives wanted a secular, family holiday, Ashton said. One of the Historical Society’s founders, John Pintard, was also active in turning July Fourth and Thanksgiving into civic holidays to cut down “wild exuberance.”
Ashton credits three New Yorkers with creating the American image of Santa: Moore, the writer Washington Irving and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose popular drawing of Santa giving gifts to Union soldiers ran in Harper’s magazine.