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Our Favorite Ghost: Santa Claus

Santa Claus, an immigrant of Greek and Dutch origin, has done very well in the Big Apple. New York City writers and cartoonists created the familiar figure we have today. Originally, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Amsterdam, the Netherlands brought his gifts to good children and left a lump of coal to bad children on December 6. The good saint had his origins in the eastern Mediterranean where he helped furnish dowries for poor women to get married. In 1625, the Dutch brought their Christmas traditions to New Amsterdam when they founded their settlement at the tip of Manhattan Island.

In 1810, Samuel Pintard, of an old English family, repackaged Christmas as a family day celebration in place of the public drunken celebrations of New Year. His friend Washington Irving in Gramercy Park described the gift giving qualities of the elf, renamed Santa Claus, in “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” He was also the first author to describe  him as fat and jolly.  St. Nicholas parked his horse-drawnwagon on the rooftops and slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. Irving’s Sketchbook (1819) helped tto popularize the holiday as a family celebration and get-together.

Clement Clarke Moore of Chelsea was a professor of theology and Hebrew and a biblical scholar at the General Seminary in Chelsea. All of his scholarly books remain in print but they did not bring him lasting fame except for a poem he wrote for his children that he shared with his friends and family. His poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” written in 1822 opens, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”He described Santa’s sleight being pulled by eight reindeer and gave them their names. Moore declared Santa arrived on Christmas Eve, December 24.

It has been a classic since its first appearance in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. In 1837 Clement Clarke Moore, a biblical scholar in New York City, allowed his name to be attached as author and, in 1844, he included the piece in his own book, Poems. Moore explained that he had written the poem on the Christmas eve of 1823.

From 1863 to 1886, Thomas Nast of Harlem drew the cartoons in Harper’s Weekly that give us the present image of Santa Claus as a jolly and weighty fellow.It was he who suggested that Santa lived at the North Pole, had his toy workshop there, and made up lists of children that had been naughty and nice.

Virginia O’Hanlon, a young girl, wrote “The New York Sun” to ask if there were really a Santa Claus.Her playmates had their doubts. Virginia complained to her   father that her classmates were teasing her about her ardent belief in Santa Claus. Her father, a physician advised her to write to The Sun and if that august afternoon broadsheet said Santa existed then it was true.