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7 Things That Prove Secular Christmas Was Born in New York City

By Nicole Levy | December 25, 2015 9:26am | Updated on December 25, 2015 4:34pm
 An 1889 illustration of Santa Claus playing the piano, by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
An 1889 illustration of Santa Claus playing the piano, by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
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Library of congress/Thomas Nast

New York is the birthplace of the teddy bear, Waldorf salad, hip-hop, the LGBT rights movement and ... Christmas?

Modern secular Christmas, that is.

Historian John Steele Gordon — who wrote about the holiday's origins in the late aughts, when the "war on Christmas" had both conservatives and atheists calling for reform — explains that two Christmases coincide Dec. 25. 

"We have a secular Christmas and a religious Christmas, and they’re both called Christmas ... but they have nothing to do with each other," said the author who grew up on the Upper East Side.

He traces the roots of "secular Christmas" back to Saturnalia, a December festival during which the ancient Romans threw parties, gave each other presents and decorated their homes with evergreens. 

(It wasn't until the 3rd century that Pope Julius I declared Christmas a church holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, in what Gordon describes as an effort to welcome new pagan converts.)

Secular Christmas began to take its modern form as a "family — and very child-centered" holiday in New York City in the 17th century, according to Gordon's research. Three centuries later, New Yorkers like his mother would find the trappings of Christmas so clichéd that when young Gordon asked to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, she said, as he recalls, "Certainly not — we're New Yorkers."

The historian taught us that some of the things associated with Christmas were invented in New York:

The name for that chubby gift-bearing man, "Santa Claus"

The moniker "Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, "Sinterklaas."

It's widely believed that the Dutch brought St. Nicholas — the patron saint of Amsterdam and children — to the 17th century colony that would become New York: New Amsterdam.

After the American Revolution, an influential patriot named John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as the patron saint of both the historical society he founded in 1804 and New York City. A fellow member of the New-York Historical Society, the author Washington Irving, began to craft St. Nicholas as the Santa Claus we know in his 1809 satirical account of the Dutch regime in New York, "Knickerbocker's History of New York."

Presents, presents, presents

In the Dutch tradition, children received presents on the morning of St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6., usually stuffed into their shoes and stockings. Jealous of the custom, children of the English families that had settled in New Amsterdam began lobbying their parents for presents; they got their gifts on English Christmas, Dec. 25, instead of St. Nicholas Day.

In the 1820s, New York merchants began taking notice of the gift-giving tradition, and in the 1850s, they started to take advantage of it, advertising their giftable goods in store windows.

Those festive holiday window displays

Elaborate store window displays have been a holiday tradition in New York since the 1870s, when Macy's, one of the city's earliest department stores, started displaying porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In 1883, the city store drew shoppers from around town when it installed in its front windows a circular track that made it look as if Santa's sleigh were being pulled by reindeer.

Santa's sleigh and reindeer

In the 19th century, New York's emerging literary establishment created much of the Christmas folklore we know. 

In his "Knickerbocker's History of New York," Irving depicted Sinterklaas riding a horse-drawn wagon through the skies and jumping down chimneys to deliver kids' presents.

A children's book published in New York in 1821, "The Children's Friend," introduced reindeer to Santa's sleigh.

Two years later a poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas," written by the New York-born scholar and teacher Clement Clarke Moore, multiplied Santa's reindeer by eight and named them all, from Dasher to Blitzen.

► Santa's dashing good looks

The political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the modern image of Santa—rosy-cheeked, bearded and rotund, wearing a fur-trimmed cap—in drawings he contributed to the New York publication Harper's Weekly. Nast often illustrated Santa on visits to Civil War troops.

Twinkling Christmas lights

Before the 20th century, New Yorkers illuminated their Christmas trees with wax candles that inevitably caused house fires.

Horrified by a 1917 fire sparked by those candles, Albert Sadacca, a teenager whose family owned a New York lighting company, suggested the business manufacture colored strings of lights as tree decorations.

By the 1920s, the lights had spread across the city.

► Those classic Christmas tunes

In 1940, noted composer and New Yorker Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas," a song that has since become a holiday anthem.

Nine years later, department store copywriter Robert May and his New Yorker brother-in-law, the songwriter Johnny Marks, composed a tune about an outsider reindeer with a shiny nose: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."