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Saint Nicholas In America

[The Story Of The Three Kings]  [Some Twelfth Night Customs]  [St. Nicholas In England]  [Father Christmas And His Family]  [Pantomime In The Past And Present]  [Saint Nicholas In Europe]  [Saint Nicholas In America]  [All About Yule Tide]  [More Christmas Articles] 

( Originally Published 1909 )

Just as the Christmas tree was brought over to this country by early German immigrants so Saint Nicholas, or Santa Klaus, came here in the train of the Dutch settlers of New York. He established himself first in the little island of Manhattan and then gradually spread all over the country, being greatly assisted by the fact that he was no stranger to the German settlers everywhere. But his Dutch origin is shown by the very name Santa Klaus, which is common alike to Holland and America, though it is elsewhere unknown.

At first he was honored on his own day with the same observances that marked the festival in the Fatherland.

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, St. Nicholas's day had been all but forgotten in New Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York) and we find that New Year's eve was the occasion when he made his rounds as a gift bearer to the children. Later he transferred his activities to Christmas.

I reproduce from an old New York magazine, dated January, 1844, a print which shows Santa Klaus on the point of remounting a chimney after filling the stockings of the children of the household. The text expressly says that the time is New Year's eve.

To go further back, we know that even in the eighteenth century, when New York was still to a great extent Dutch in blood and in feeling, the little children of the Knickerbockers would gather expectant around the great hearth in the parlor on the eve of New Year and not on the eve of Saint Nicholas's feast. It was to Saint Nicholas, however, that they addressed the childish hymns and songs which their forefathers had brought over from Holland.

Here are two specimen verses:

Santa Klaus, good holy man!
Go your way from Amsterdam;
From Amsterdam to Spain,
From Spain to Orange,
And bring us little children toys.

Saint Nicholas, my dear goad friend,
To praise you ever is my end.
If you will presents to me give
I'll serve you till I cease to live.

It was about the middle of the nineteenth century that the funny men of America took the Saint under their special patronage. In Holland he had been austere and dignified, as became a bishop and a saint. In America he developed into the fat, jolly, pot-bellied old roysterer whom we all know and love and who reminds us at so many points of the fun loving Silenus of Pagan times.

Undoubtedly it was the American Clement C. Moore who immortalized the figure and decided the model which all succeeding poets and artists have ever followed. This is how Santa Klaus is described in Mr. Moore's very popular poem entitled "A Visit from Santa Klaus" :

He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack,
His eyes how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath,
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly,
He was chubby and plump - a right jolly old elf -
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

Year by year the funny men of the pencil and the pen do their best to add to his eccentricities yet always they retain a measure of respect for the dear old gentleman.

One comic artist sends him to Wall Street among the brokers and the bankers, yet he preserves his dignity even among those shrewd and clever men, and is ready to teach them more than they can hope to teach him.

Other artists make him turn to account the latest inventions of our inventors and scientists. Even if one picture does show him coming to grief on an automobile, another catches him in the very act of utilizing a flying machine.

Again we are shown another side of the matter. We are brought face to face with the unbelief of the child who is ripening into boyhood or girlhood.

At six years old or sometimes later doubts begin to visit the youthful mind. These doubts are carried very far by the little girl-a juvenile Saint Thomas in pantalettes-who in Mr. J. R. Shaver's picture, meets Santa Klaus face to face, yet tells him to his face that she doesn't believe in him.

At this period in their lives young folks of both sexes will sympathize with the spirit of inquiry that summons Saint Nicholas, as in Mr. O'Malley's cartoon, to answer before a judge and jury of their own age the question as to whether he has any real existence.

And now turn to the last picture of all, that which Mr. Henry Hutt has kindly lent me for reproduction in this little book, and if you insist on an answer which will rob you of the bliss of ignorance, perhaps you will find it there!

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