Despite busy schedules, throngs of tourists and cold temperatures, you would be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who doesn’t find joy in holiday traditions. How would we know it was December without the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, store windows on Fifth Avenue, street vendors selling chestnuts, and nostalgic subway trains and toy train exhibitions? Thousands have already visited our Holiday Express exhibition this season, and we look forward to sharing these newly-acquired toys and trains from the golden age of toy-making as an annual tradition for years to come.
As you may imagine, the New-York Historical Society has a long tradition of celebrating, collecting, and promoting the holiday spirit. John Pintard, the founder of the New-York Historical Society, took an active role in championing a family holiday, a domestic, cheerful celebration that would offer an alternative to the rowdy winter months (during which employment and spirits were low throughout the city) while also unifying a diverse and growing population. In 1810, the New-York Historical Society met in Federal Hall to toast “Sancte Claus,” a giver of presents to good children, and to declare the traditional feast day of December 6, the date of their annual meeting.
Robert Walter Weir (1803 – 1889), St. Nicholas, 1837. Oil on wood panel. New-York Historical Society, Gift of George A. Zabriskie, 1951.76
One of my favorite holiday treasures is hanging in our second floor gallery (The Works). This depiction of a rather naughty St. Nicholas was painted in 1837 by Robert Weir, an American painter and professor of drawing at West Point. His beardless, gnome-like Santa Claus, dressed in boots and a cap decorated with a clay pipe, the traditional emblem of a saint, was based on an old Dutch convention. The image of Santa Claus varied and evolved considerably throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In Weir’s St. Nicholas, a modern Santa appears in adolescence, looking back at his religious origin, but also heavily influenced by the secular written depictions of New-York Historical Society members Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore (with “a broad face and a little round belly”). Santa’s secular makeover would become complete by the time of the Civil War, as seen in Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.
On behalf of New-York Historical’s staff, happy holidays and best wishes in the coming year!