Nations have fervently claimed him as patron. From sacred icons and medieval legends to secular folklore and modern commercialism, St. Nicholas is renowned worldwide. But would one guess that America claims a long and storied friendship with this popular saint?
While Haddon Sundblom’s series of Coca-Cola illustrations in the 1930s are often credited for reintroducing St. Nick to modern society, one need only look back one hundred years or so to find stories of the bishop alive and well in the States, or at least in the state of New York.
When the “Father of American Literature” published his ghostly autumnal tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1820, Washington Irving wasted no time in alluding to the presence of St. Nicholas in the colonies as he cites commonplace devotion to the saint in the very first paragraph of his story: “…the ancient Dutch navigators…prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of Saint Nicholas when they crossed….”
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Evidently, this was not a new custom but rather an old and fervent reverence which was continued by the Dutch settlers despite many hardships both before and after their arrival in the New World. In order to appreciate this fact, one must look back a few hundred years to the time of the Protestant Reformation.
In the 1520s, Martin Luther’s new ideology was fully underway, and with it came an intense motivation to strip itself bare of anything resembling the old Faith, including the pious customs and traditions. The festivities of Christmastide were particularly in need of purification. The Yule log and mistletoe, remnants from the Norse heathens, were done away with, as were the Catholic Advent feast days and devotions—especially devotions to the saints.
This proved to be no easy task, as these observances had been well-embedded within the lives of the townsfolk for generations and, while many agreed that the Church was in need of reform, not all were ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One saint in particular, the holy Nicholas, remained extraordinarily popular; and Luther himself singled him out for condemnation.
By this time, the Blessed Bishop was not only remembered as a historic cleric worthy of reverence but also a wonder worker to be implored for his spiritual intercession and a bringer of gifts and guardian of children: a Patron Saint for all. An outright ban on devotions to the saint would do little to stamp out Nicholas’ legacy, and Luther was forced to take drastic measures.
In Luther’s mind, God alone was deserving of homage; this left little room for praise of any other heavenly figures. So, he introduced a counterpose: the Christkindl. This new gift-bringer was proposed as God Himself, the Christ Child, no longer showering presents on the faithful on the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, but on the eve of His own birth, December 24th.
This time, Luther’s efforts paid off, at least in part. The new Christkindl took hold successfully throughout Europe and other parts of the globe. In many households, St. Nicholas was forgotten. And yet, history has shown that Luther’s efforts were not as lasting as they initially appeared. Not only has the legacy of Nicholas survived multiple attempts of extermination in Europe, but the very title of Christkindl is now inextricably bound to the saint through the variation Kris Kringle.
Although the tradition of gift-giving still takes place on the day of Christ’s birth due in part to Luther’s efforts, the world over recognizes Sinterklaas or, in the vernacular, Santa Claus, as the bringer of presents.
Now, back to the Dutch. While multiple nations were quick enough to accept the new Lutheran teachings and the Christkindl, the residents of the Netherlands never completely ceased their devotions to St. Nicholas. Fast-forward one hundred years to 1626 and we find affection for him alive and well.
In fact, the Dutch clung to the saint with such zeal one might think their lives depended on it. With the colonization of the New World, the governors and authorities of Amsterdam found no reason to forgo the new possibilities it offered and readied ships to set sail. There was only one problem: almost none of the residents were willing to embark on such an enterprise.
All were aware of the dangers that leaving Holland posed, and it would require much incentive for them to willingly exchange their familiar society for the untamed wilderness of America. After much deliberation and negotiation, enough volunteers were found to warrant an expedition with the promise of land, money, and the protection of St. Nicholas, the latter being the selling point of the endeavor.
While the authenticity of what follows has been doubted by historians, it is nonetheless a compelling account. They soon set sail on the “Goede Vrouw” the Good Woman—with a figurehead of the saint carved into its bow—and made for the southern tip of what is now Manhattan Island. It is reported that the journey went well enough, having the guidance of the friend of Heaven.
Once they landed in New Amsterdam, a statue of the Wonder-Worker was erected in the center of the town; and the very first church was named in his honor. Whether or not the details of this event are historically credible, the fact remains that the saint has had a profound and lasting impact on this country as we know it, even from its beginning.
And yet, as remarkable as this account may be, it is not the first instance of St. Nick gracing the shores of the Americas. Nearly two months after his initial rediscovery of America in 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered a Caribbean island, present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, on December the 5th. He set foot on its northern shores the next morning after much prayer and christened it the Port of Saint Nicholas in honor of the saint whose feast was that very day.
In the aftermath of Luther, Christmas celebrations were banned by the Puritans in England and other parts of Europe. It did not take long for this ban to spread to the colonies (especially Massachusetts). So, for the time being, the name St. Nicholas was only a whispered one. Once the Revolutionary War concluded and America had won her freedom, many of these bans were lifted in the United States or were simply ignored. Then St. Nicholas, with the help of the “Father of American Literature,” was ready to be accepted by the public imagination once more.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was not the only mention made by Washington Irving concerning the holy man. In fact, he made dozens of allusions to the bishop throughout his writings, both in the stories he produced and in the historical articles he published, and, notably, in his book A History of New York. Irving’s descriptions of the bishop and Christmas sizzle with such enthusiasm that it is clear he sought to revitalize the Dutch heritage of the New York region by reintroducing his fellow countrymen to this singular saint.
Washington Irving did more than write about the bishop. He was a founding member of The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York, the first of its kind in the U.S., back in 1835. The society’s mission, no doubt spearheaded by Irving, was to appreciate the history and promote the traditions of New England and especially of New York. St. Nicholas, being a senior patron of their Dutch forefathers, was appropriately chosen as namesake.
The society was a success, Irving’s writings quickly became popular, and affection for the Yuletide saint spread far and wide. Irving’s efforts were so successful that even before the society was founded, a professor by the name of Rev. Clement Clarke Moore felt inspired by Irving’s work and, drawing from Dutch traditions, Nordic folklore, and England’s Father Christmas, wrote a seasonal poem for his children in 1821. Originally entitled “A visit from St. Nicholas,” his poem is remembered and recited as “The Night Before Christmas.”
One can only wonder at the fact that while very little is known about St. Nicholas historically, he is universally recognized through a myriad of guises. Whether one reveres the saintly bishop of Myra or simply anticipates the loot from a jolly old elf, this patron has had an undeniably powerful yet quiet influence on the course of mankind.
Even today, while progress continues to charge forward and human achievements grow by the minute, St. Nicholas endures as a timeless inspiration for the ages. And so long as one may spread hope, generosity, and joy to others, he continues to show how blessed it is to give.
Just as Washington Irving strove to preserve the memory and heritage of the Dutch colonists so that their stories and devotions might be handed down, we, too, can delve further into the life and lore of the man known as Nicholas to see and emulate the gentle way in which he has gracefully enriched so many lives.