Over the centuries Christmas in the United States has taken on a number of unique observances, some enjoyed and others lamented. We may bemoan how Jolly Old St. Nicholas has been turned by some into an excuse for materialism, but long before these culture wars, everyone’s favorite Christmas character got his start right here in the United States as the byproduct of a different culture war from two centuries ago!
To understand where Santa Claus came from, we have to return to the days when New York was a battleground. No, not the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, but 150 years before that, when Long Island, New York was a battleground between a different set of rival colonial powers vying for continental supremacy: the English and the Dutch.
For forty years between 1624 and 1664, Holland, the great seafaring power of the age, attempted to colonize the swath of land between Connecticut and Delaware, using Manhattan as its base. New Netherland, as the region was known, was always an afterthought to its Dutch rulers, however, and it never received enough supplies, people, or financing to truly flourish. On Long Island, or Lange Eylandt in Dutch, the newly settled villages on its western tip — Brooklyn, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht, and Bushwick – were insufficiently defended against attack by Native Americans and neglected in services such as the state-supported religion, sharing an overworked itinerant minister between them.
Then arrived in Dutch territory an inﬂux of English settlers accustomed to New England’s colonial model of local townsmen participating in government affairs. During the Great Migration, English Puritans settled Boston and rapidly pushed New England’s frontiers in all directions. Within a decade the new colony of New Haven on the southern New England coast was not only established, but also seeking to expand, which they did by crossing the Long Island Sound and settling eastern Long Island. Around the same time, other English colonists came to New Netherland, explicitly agreeing to reside under Dutch authority. Hempstead, for example, was an early English settlement within Dutch jurisdiction, and Gravesend (now in Brooklyn), was founded by Lady Deborah Moody, who was permitted by the Dutch to settle with her fellow religious dissenters. And there also grew heterogeneous communities like Flushing (now in Queens).
It was only a matter of time before the growing number of Anglophones on Long Island became discontent with Dutch authority — and the long-standing weaknesses of the Dutch rulers left them ill-equipped to deal with the grievances. Taxes were high, leading to tax revolts, and democratic representation was even more limited than it was under English rule, resulting in petitions to Holland against the local ruler, Peter Stuyvesant. Quakers chafed at (Dutch) Reformed Church dominance, and most frustratingly of all, the Dutch continued to mismanage their relationship with Native Americans, leaving isolated Long Island towns vulnerable to attack. The situation escalated to the point where some Anglophone Long Islanders connived with English authorities across the sound in New Haven and across the ocean in London to attack Manhattan, the seat of Dutch power. They lobbied for the English to send a fleet to conquer all of New Netherland and even formed their own regiment to assist. The English fleet sailed into New York Harbor in 1664, and Stuyvesant, greatly outnumbered, surrendered without a fight.
The Dutch colony’s Long Island towns, insufficiently maintained from the start, were largely eroded from within by the time Stuyvesant surrendered. However, the Dutch families of Long Island retained their unique identity for generations after the English conquest. The mystique of that brief, but bygone era intrigued many New Yorkers, mostly notably Washington Irving in the early 19th century. By the end of that century, when it was clear that Dutch village life was finally collapsing under the weight of modernization, historians and genealogists rushed to freeze time.
A seminal genealogy from this period can be found in Teunis G. Bergen’s Register…of Early Settlers of Kings County, Long Island, N.Y., first published in 1881. Also published in 1881 was Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt’s delightfully snarky Social History of Flatbush. In the late 19th century fraternal and heritage organizations incorporating Dutch Long Islanders burgeoned: there’s now the Holland Society, the Knickerbocker Club, the Society of Old Brooklynites, and especially the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, whose annual reports and yearbooks dutifully transcribe and translate ship manifests and church and cemetery records from this period. The New York State Archives has complemented this work, producing new translations of court records and government and West India Company correspondence on a regular basis. In 1999 David Riker produced The Genealogical and Biographical Register to Persons in New Netherland, aggregating hundreds of resources into a tidy, four-volume work. Contemporary scholars continue to document the shift from Dutch to English culture in the New York area. Joyce Goodfriend’s Before the Melting Pot analyzes how the Dutch language was phased out of use, and Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World points out where bits of Dutch culture linger in contemporary US culture.
Which brings us back to Santa Claus!
His creation is the result of patricians John Pintard, Washington Irving, and Clement Moore, the first to call themselves Knickerbockers, who were nostalgic even in the early 1800s for the faded Dutch culture in which, they believed, elites like themselves weren’t under siege. The three men latched onto the winter holiday figure of Sinterklaas, celebrated by the Dutch on St. Nicholas’ Eve in early December, and their publications collectively transformed this centuries-old figure into the modern Santa Claus who flies in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and enters houses through the chimney to fill children’s stockings with presents. Ironically, to Pintard, Irving, and Moore Santa Claus represented a better New York before capitalism transformed the city, but today, of course, the figure of Santa Claus arguably helps drive the kind of consumerism the men disdained.
So, if you think about Santa during Christmas Eve tonight, instead of picturing him and his sleigh flying overhead, think of Holland and England duking it out for control of North America!