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The story of the American Santa Claus is a very interesting combination of changes in society, economics, and the influence of literature with invented traditions. In early New England, Christmas was not celebrated in fact it was forbidden. The old world excesses in rowdiness, feasting and drinking were not acceptable to the Pilgrims. They also did not believe that December 25th was the date of Christ’s birth. In the southern colonies, the English traditions of visiting and parties throughout the season were observed.
In the early 1800’s, especially in the cities the holiday season had become a raucous event with drunken mobs roaming the streets causing problems and frightening the upper classes. Because of this there was a concerted effort to tame the season and make it more a focus of home and family.
In New York in 1804, the New York Historical Society was formed by John Pintard and St. Nicholas was named as the patron saint.
In 1809, Washington Irving, a member of the society, wrote a fictional and satirical history of New York, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. In this he references St. Nicholas not as a saintly figure, but as a plainly dressed Dutchman. He creates some of the image we have today of Santa including riding in a wagon, smoking a pipe and “laying his finger aside of his nose”.
Another literary influence was the publication in 1821 of The Children’s Friend, which is the first mention of “Santeclaus”, dressed in red, arriving from the north with flying reindeer.
And of course the most well known is Clement C. Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1824. The poem establishes Christmas Eve as the time for the gift delivery along with stockings hanging by the chimney, a very merry St. Nick, and a flying sleigh with eight reindeer.
The early illustrations of Santa Claus vary in style and color, but most feature a long, hooded, fur trimmed coat.
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