Santa Claus’ Capital Region Connections

There are countless Christmas traditions that Americans take part in every December—this year at Kingsway’s senior living communities, residents and staff alike celebrated by dressing up as elves, participating in holiday sing-alongs, frosting cookies and decorating Christmas trees. But one Christmas tradition trumps all the rest. That’s the tradition of Santa Claus, the jolly, red-clad fellow who’s image you can’t avoid during the holiday season. And, as it turns out, Santa Claus is actually an Upstate New York creation.


Most people know that the image of Santa Claus grew out of that of a real person—a Christian bishop of Greek descent known as Saint Nicholas. But they don’t know how the world made the jump from the third-century man who dedicated his life to assisting the needy, to a pot-bellied, white-bearded mythical being who travels from his home at the North Pole to bring toys to all the good boys and girls via flying reindeer-drawn sleigh. Yeah, it’s quite the leap.


To figure out how the Santa we know (and love!) today came to be, we have to hark back to America’s earliest days. When the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam—what is New York City today—they brought with them stories and traditions surrounding St. Nick. (Europeans had for years been celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6  by sharing candies and small gifts, and leaving carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint’s horses in hopes that Nicholas would exchange them for gifts.) It was from those stories and traditions that New Yorker Washington Irving, best known for penning The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, drew inspiration for his 1809 book Kickerbocker’s History of New York, a piece of satirical fiction that referred to St. Nicholas not a  bishop but as an elfin figure with a clay pipe. In the 1820s, Irving published more stories about the tradition of Christmas in England, which included mentions of feasting, gifting, mistletoe, Yule logs and more.


It was around that time that the famous poem-turned-children’s book “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in the Troy Record. Yes, that Troy. The story, which is widely credited to professor Clement Clarke Moore, told the tale of the night before Christmas, when St. Nicholas arrives to the narrator’s home with a slew of reindeer and a sleigh full of toys. These and other works of fiction popularized the American “Sante Claus,” who would eventually become Santa Claus.


But the Capital Region wasn’t done transforming the image of St. Nick just yet. In 1842, an Albany store owner named Richard Pease realized modern-day Santa’s selling potential and printed one of the first images him in an ad. Santa is rotund, has a beard, suit and peeked hat, and is depicted as about to climb down a chimney. Later that decade, Pease produced the nation’s first Christmas cards (English Christmas cards had come out across the Atlantic several years prior), and gave them out to the store’s customers.


The rest, as they say, is history. So, the next time you read the words “’Twas the night before Christmas,” or see an ad with Santa in it, or send a Christmas card, you’ll not only be celebrating the holidays—you’ll be celebrating good old Upstate New York.