It's recently been reported that an atheists' group has planned an advertising campaign for this Christmas, featuring a photograph of smiling people wearing Santa Claus hats. The caption: "No God? . . . No problem! Be good for goodness sake." Whatever you might think of this message, the ad does contain a grain of historical truth: the modern image of Santa Claus was invented in the 19th century by New Yorkers, as a secular myth meant to unite the city's diverse and growing population.
No common observance of Christmas existed in New York at that time, other than a holiday from work. Many Protestant churches frowned on elaborate Christmas celebrations, which they associated with Anglo-Catholicism and the aristocracy. The city's free laborers, who often suffered from unemployment in the dark days of winter when shipping and industry slowed down, were only too willing to gather in the streets at Christmas, turning the holiday into an excuse for drunken caroling. As for the laborers in the city's large enslaved population, they used this rare time off for celebrations that often included customs with roots in Africa.
There's little wonder that some leading citizens would have welcomed a symbol that encouraged peaceful, domestic celebrations, of the sort that most New Yorkers might share. They found that symbol in Santa Claus, starting around 1810.
That year, on St. Nicholas Day (December 6), the members of the New-York Historical Society convened in Federal Hall for their annual meeting. Among those present were Washington Irving, author of the recently published Knickerbocker's History of New York, with its delightful (and imaginary) tales of by-gone times in New Amsterdam--including stories of old Dutch beliefs and customs regarding a jolly, pipe-smoking, gift-giving St. Nicholas. Also present at Federal Hall for the meeting was Clement Clarke Moore, a young scholar who was later to become (according to most accounts) the author of the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
Robert Walter Weir, St. Nicholas, 1837; New-York Historical Society.
For this gathering at Federal Hall, the New-York Historical Society commissioned Dr. Alexander Anderson to print a St. Nicholas Day broadside, with an engraving that showed a traditional Dutch hearth with teakettle, stack of waffles and household cat. Stockings were filled with gifts for the good girl perched above the hearth, while--on the right--birch rods stood waiting to punish the naughty boy sitting next to her. From this time on, the date of the Historical Society's annual meeting was to be the Feast of St. Nicholas--and St. Nicholas himself was to become Santa Claus, a comforting figure associated with hearth and home.
An exhibition currently on view at the New-York Historical Society shows how the image of Santa Claus evolved over the next years. During the Civil War, for example, Santa's image evoked powerful feelings on the home front, as in Thomas Nast's 1863 cartoon of him distributing gifts to Union soldiers. At the end of the war, Nast again turned to the image of Santa, showing him helping Americans to celebrate the return of peace. It seemed not to matter that Lee had surrendered to Grant on Palm Sunday 1865, not on Christmas. By this point, Santa Claus was a symbol whose meaning was no longer limited to a religious observance, or even a season, but encompassed everything that is kindly, cheerful, generous and peaceful. In the words of an 1866 poem by George Webster:
He is large round the waist, but what care we for that--
'Tis the good-natured people who always get fat.
So it seems that the atheists have history on their side with their new advertising campaign. The modern image of Santa Claus was never meant to divide people according to religious--or cultural--beliefs. Just the opposite: Santa and the secular celebration associated with him were invented for all people, to encourage everyone to be good.