December 2009 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Merry St. Nicholas Day!

December 6 is here, kids, and there are two reasons to celebrate. Firstly, it is the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving's delicious satire, A History of New York (For more on that, see my article in our December issue). Secondly, it is St. Nicholas Day, a holiday to honor New York's patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. The holiday is little recognized in New York anymore but was popular among the city's early settlers.

From The St. Nicholas Center:

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony's nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas: that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving's work was regarded as the "first notable work of imagination in the New World."

The New York Historical Society is currently displaying Irving's History on the second floor in the case exhibit called "American Books: Hudson River Authors." A bit buried, perhaps, considering the season and the anniversary, but they redeem themselves with a holiday exhibit that traces the modern image of Santa from medieval bishop to jolly old guy in a red suit. You can also see the desk of Clement Clarke Moore (disputed author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (1822), better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas").