With more than four centuries of history, it’s no wonder that so many beloved Christmastime traditions originated in New York. Here are a few highlights, and remember if you’re in the city during the winter season, be sure to see our beloved Yueltide exhibition, Holiday Express, now on view through February 28.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…
First published anonymously in the Troy, New York, Sentinel in 1823, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is now attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. He was a theologian and New Yorker whose sizable estate was located in what’s now Chelsea. Although some continue to debate the work’s author, Moore publicly acknowledged that the poem was his own in 1838. At the request of the New-York Historical Society Librarian, he penned this manuscript copy of the classic Christmas poem in 1862.
Santa was Born in New York
In the midst of the Civil War, New Yorker and cartoonist Thomas Nast created the popular image of Santa. Nast’s first illustrations of Saint Nick were published in the January 3, 1863, edition of Harper’s Weekly. The jovial North Pole resident was featured in the centerfold, visiting Union soldiers in desperate need of a morale boost. Following his initial illustration, Nast published a total of 33 Christmas drawings by 1881. His consistent depiction standardized previously diverse illustrations of Santa Claus. Ultimately, he drew what many have come to view as the official portrait of Saint Nick. Today his image of a jolly, round, bearded old man riding a sleigh remains the enduring symbol of Christmas across the United States.
Yueltide Sleigh Rides
Today driverless cars are practically within our reach, so it’s no wonder we romanticize bygone modes of transportation like sleighs. But in 19th-century New York, the wintery mode of travel was a force to be reckoned with. Famed diarist George Templeton Strong dramatically recorded his contempt for the sleigh:
These insane vehicles carry each its hundred sufferers, of whom about half have to stand in the wet straw with their feet freezing…their ears and noses tingling in the bitter wind, their hats always on the point of being blown off. When the chariot stops, they tumble forward, and when it starts again, they tumble backward, and when they arrive at the end of their ride…. It’s more than a carnival; it’s a wintry dionysiaca.
However, not all New Yorkers shared Strong’s scorn. Some artists captured more idyllic scenes of wintery sleigh rides during the century.
The Rockefeller Plaza Tree Lighting Ceremony
Did you know that the Rockefeller Plaza tree lighting tradition unofficially dates back to 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression? On Christmas Eve of that year, laborers decorated a 20-foot balsam with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, and a few ornaments. Afterwards, while the tree gleamed behind them, they excitedly lined up to receive their pay. The Great Depression left tens of thousands of New Yorkers unemployed; among them were more than half of all the city’s trade workers. The plaza’s construction provided jobs for an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 men, drastically increasing employment, while transforming the New York skyline. The first official tree lighting ceremony was held two year later in 1933.
Merry Christmas from the New-York Historical Society!