The Legend of Santa Claus

America’s English Puritan settlers made it illegal to mention Saint Nicolas’ name, light candles, or exchange gifts, practices customary in England since Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660–coincidentally, in the same century that Dutch immigrants brought their legend of Sinter Klaas to New York. In 1804 the New York Historical Society chose St. Nicolas as their patron saint, and encouraged its members to exchange gifts at Christmas in the Dutch tradition. Five years later best-selling author Washington Irving spun a tale describing St. Nicolas riding over the trees in a wagon in his popular book A History of New York. Ten years after that two popular poems added to the legend of a generous, benevolent, gift-bearing “saint.”  The poem “Santeclaus” featured an imaginary person who dressed in fur and traveled about in a sleigh drawn by one reindeer. The second poem, which later became better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” portrayed Saint Nicolas as an elf with a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. By the mid-1840s people were saying “Criscringle” (or Kris Kringle) and “Santa Claus.” The gold discovery in 1848 lured thousands of Americans to California, who brought these holiday cultural icons west. By the early 1900s the image of Santa had been standardized as a bearded, plump, jolly man who wore a red suit trimmed with white fur.


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