Sunday, December 6, 2015

Saint Nicholas Feast Day - Santa in 19C America

Santa Claus

1837 Robert Walter Weir (American artist, 1803-1889) St Nicholas

Owen Edwards explains in the Smithsonian magazine, December 2011, that the painter was a member of a well-heeled gentlemen’s society, the Knickerbockers, many of whose members traced ancestry directly to Manhattan’s original 17C Dutch settlers. St. Nicholas was a central figure in the popular culture of the Netherlands, beloved as the bearer of gifts in the Christmas season. For the early Dutch colonists in the New World, the saint’s feast day—December 6—was eagerly anticipated. Northern Europeans traditionally put out boots on the eve of the sixth for gifts delivered by the saint. And the children of New Amsterdam did the same.

Weir’s portrayal of St. Nicholas was inspired in part by the descriptions of a fellow Knickerbocker, Washington Irving, the celebrated author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 1809, was replete with charming digressions. Among them was a set piece on the saint, portraying him as an elfin, antic figure, his appearance drawn from the ranks of the Dutch bourgeoisie. Smoking a clay pipe and “laying his finger beside his nose,” Irving wrote, St. Nicholas soars over trees in a flying wagon “wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”  Irving also advanced the notion that the saint descended into chimneys to bestow his treats.  In the Weir painting, the two clay pipes recall both Irving’s earlier description of St. Nicholas as well as the Dutch penchant for smoking, a convention often seen in old-master paintings. A half-peeled orange lies on the floor-a festive delicacy at the time as well as an allusion to Holland’s royal House of Orange.

"...Santa Claus, with his fur-trimmed red suit, sackful of toys, reindeer, sleigh and home at the North Pole, emerged as a major folk figure. He first appeared in semi-modern form in the 1820s, in Clement Moore's An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. By the 1850s-60s, artists and writers had given wide circulation to the genial and generous American saint that Moore had introduced. Thomas Nast's fanciful Christmas drawings widened the sphere of Santa's rule in the late 19C. Moore had already supplied 8 reindeer to pull the sleigh. Nast gave him a workshop and ledgers to record children's conduct. He made him taller and dressed him in red. To this, Nast and others added a home at the North Pole, elves, a wife and even, by some accounts, children..."

Santa Clause by Thomas Nast 1881

"...In the New York Sun's famous discourse on the spiritual meaning of Santa. In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon asked a plain question of the editor: 'Is there a Santa Claus?' 'Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus', came the terse reply. The answer, though, was not a patent fib designed to placate a youngster, but an exposition on belief itself. 'Virginia, your little friends are wrong', the editor wrote. 'They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see'. Without Santa, he argued: 'there would he no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence ... Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world."

Quoted text from Penne Restad Published in History Today Volume: 45 Issue: 12 1995 Christmas in 19C America

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