While Christmas in America predates the American Revolution Santa Claus did not make a splash in America until 1810.
He arrived, as many Americans do, in New York City.
Local merchant and leader of a local historical society by the name of John Pintard objected to the roughness of Christmas as it was celebrated in the early 19th century and proposed a solution. Drawing on New York City’s Dutch origins, he promoted Saint Nicholas as the city’s patron saint – having a pamphlet printed in 1810 that’s the earliest known American image of Santa. Pintard suggested that the celebrations should be private and family-oriented rather than public and brawling.
His brother-in-law, Washington Irving, picked up on St. Nick in his book “Knickerbocker’s History“, describing a recognizably Dutch figure in a broad hat, smoking a long pipe.
Irving’s book is more popular today than it was then – probably because it wasn’t a serious work. In fact, it was satire. But Irving’s book likely did catch the eye of Clement Moore, whose own spin on Santa Claus through his oft-repeated poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (or, as it is better known, Twas the Night Before Christmas), became the first traditional art of Christmas replayed season after season in America.
It is interesting to note the role of the American media over the course of time in shaping the image of Santa Claus.
Irving’s book led to Moore’s poem, which was read nationwide as it was reprinted each holiday season.
That in turn inspired Thomas Nast decades later. Nast was a political cartoonist in the 1850s and 1860s who took the words of the famous Moore poem and gave Santa a shape and a look that became instantly recognizable to Americans who may have never actually met Santa Claus or a person portraying Santa. Nast’s many illustrations of Santa Claus were distributed in early American newsprint and magazines, giving Nast the first crack at visually shaping the public’s perception of Santa Claus.
American merchants quickly seized on the growing popularity of Nast’s Santa images. They recognized, as Stan Freberg notes in his classic satire Green Chri$tma$ that the season was a marketing opportunity and while they didn’t dare commercialize the Baby Jesus they had the pitchman they were looking for in the Americanized version of St. Nicholas.
Popular songs in the 19th century also progressed the image of Santa Claus. Up on the Housetop was written in 1864 by Benjamin Handby, who was the first to advance the idea that Santa landed on the roof of homes to go down the chimney.
In the late 19th century Santa portrayers widely started to work in American department stores, giving attention to children and fueling the newly American acquired taste for accumulation and gift giving during the holiday season.
Such widespread exposure of Santa led many children to adopt Santa as an American hero. Adults were taken to him too. Even today, the famed letter of 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon – who asked in a letter to the editor if Santa Claus was real – and the famous response penned by editor Francis Church in 1897 moves hearts in their consideration of Santa in nearly sacred terms.
It is important to note that Santa does not have a history in America that is totally commercial.
He was widely portrayed as a symbol of giving to the needy at Christmas time and could be seen on the streets of large cities in America collecting money, clothes and food for the poor. This tradition comes in thanks to volunteers working for the Salvation Army, many of whom pioneered the red kettle campaign dressed as Santa Claus in the 1890s.