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Santa Claus' New York City Roots Explored in Museum Exhibit

By Dartunorro Clark | November 29, 2016 4:50pm
 Three Subway Santas, New York City, c. 1950.
Three Subway Santas, New York City, c. 1950.
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Courtesy MCNY

Did you know Santa Claus is almost a New Yorker?

Yes, his beard and penchant for artisan crafts would perhaps be welcomed in Williamsburg. But Jolly Saint Nick actually does have a real connection with the city — four of its residents were instrumental in creating the old gift-giving man in the red suit.

The Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street is opening an exhibit this weekend that pays homage to the role the city played in creating the modern-day Santa Claus.

It details the efforts of John Pintard, Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore and Thomas Nast to shape the image of the rosy-cheeked man from the North Pole.

Pintard, who was the founder of The New-York Historical Society in 1804, made St. Nicholas a patron saint of the city and the society just after the Revolutionary War.

More: See DNAinfo Partners' Neighborhood Picks in the 2016 Holiday Guide

This was during a time when many in the city wanted to enthusiastically celebrate New York’s Dutch roots, according to the museum, which prompted Pintard to choose Holland’s version of the benevolent Saint Nicholas.

A few years later, Irving then popularized the character with his “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” in 1809, which was an imaginative tale of a jolly Saint Nicholas in colonial attire who climbed down chimneys, unlike the figure in Dutch tradition.  

Next up, Clark Moore, a Chelsea resident and a minister. He is credited with writing “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” — or, as many now know it, “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” — in 1822.

 An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore.
An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore.
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New-York Historical Society

The poem notably described Santa’s eight reindeer, his twinkly eyes and his belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly.

Some decades later, Nast — an influential editorial cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly — drew the image of what many consider the modern-day Santa, an elderly man with red rosy cheeks and a long white beard dressed in a red suit, the museum exhibit claims.

The display will include an original handwritten Christmas poem by Clark Moore from the mid-19th century, classic images of Santa in the city throughout the years and a 1904 Christmas Dinner menu from The New Cadillac Hotel.

“With Santa officially kicking-off the holiday season at the Thanksgiving Day Parade riding his sled through New York City, we want to continue in that spirit and invite one and all to meet the man himself right here at the top of Museum Mile and experience his story with a New York twist,” said Whitney Donhauser, the museum’s director.

The exhibit “Santa and the City” will launch Sunday, Dec. 4, from 1 p.m. to 5 pm and is free. It will continue until Jan. 8.

For the family day with Santa, including arts and crafts activities, holiday snacks and photos, tickets are $40 per family, which includes museum admission for up to five guests and a family photo with Santa. To learn more, please visit http://www.mcny.org/event/santa-city