How New York Created Christmas

Many people do not know how much of modern Christmas iconography and traditions are rooted in New York's history.

The first major connection comes from writer Washington Irving (of "Rip Van Winkle" & "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" fame). Upset that there were few unifying holidays in early America, Irving worked to change that. In his 1809 “A History of New York”  (a comical retelling of the city's Dutch era), he declared the European gift-giver St. Nicholas to be the state’s patron saint, claiming that his image appeared on the masthead of the first Dutch ship to arrive in New Amsterdam.

St. Nicholas Day, or the Feast of St. Nicholas, was for much of history a separate holiday in early December associated with the gift-giving saint.

St. Nicholas then himself became tied to the Christmas holiday thanks to another author, Clement Clarke Moore, who lived in a mansion on Manhattan farm land in what later became Chelsea. In his famous short story, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas", Moore described the saint as “a right jolly old elf,” based on “a portly rubicund Dutchman,” in the neighborhood, with his “eight tiny reindeer,” with some other elements borrowed from Irving’s version of the Saint. St. Nicholas Day is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 6 in Europe, but Moore’s poem set his visit on Christmas Eve, informally tying St. Nicholas to the holiday for the first time.

Then, in the 1860s, American political cartoonist Thomas Nast further cemented this depiction with drawings in the NY-based publication Harper's Weekly depicting St. Nick/Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded, fat man in a fur-trimmed cap.

More traditions kept piling up throughout NYC history... Santa's inclusion in Thanksgiving parades, public Christmas trees, decorated store windows, and more.

Today, Christmas remains New York's most enchanting season, and is the busiest tourism season for the city. Holiday markets, elaborately-decorated trees everywhere, bell-ringers... between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day itself, you are hard-pressed to find anywhere in Manhattan where the holiday is not front and center.

You can live this history and magic now by booking my special, seasonal walking tour!