With New York’s history of being a cultural trendsetter both in the US and around the world, is it that surprising that the city has had an outsized effect on Christmas? Here are three things that New York has contributed to Christmas culture.
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” Poem
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except Clement Clarke Moore and Henry Livingston, Jr. who were having a death match by the fireplace over who truly wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” For at least a century, scholars and descendants of the alleged poets have been debating who the true author of this Christmas classic is. The poem was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, but Moore, whose family owned the land that today is the neighborhood of Chelsea, claimed authorship in 1844. He explained that he didn’t initially take ownership of the poem out of fear that it would ruin his reputation as an ancient languages professor. Although there had been rumblings within the Livingston family, it wasn’t until 1899 that the descendants of Henry Livingston, Jr. began to publicly assert that he was the true author of the poem. Some scholars have backed up the family’s claim, saying that the poem is more in line with Livingston’s style of writing than Moore’s, but the debate is still ongoing. Personally, I hope that Moore was the real author. Only because Moore was from NYC, while Livingston lived in Poughkeepsie.
The Appearance of Santa Claus
The author of the “A Visit from St. Nicholas” poem, whomever he may be, gave us the foundation of the image of Santa Claus that we picture today. As the poem says,
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
Decades later, during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast created a visual to that description, drawing a bearded, plump Santa boosting the morale of the Union soldiers. He later drew other images of Santa Claus, though his outfits and their colors varied. The work of Moore/Livingston and Nast, all New Yorkers, set the stage for Coca Cola to launch the image of Santa worldwide with their famous ads of the jolly old elf in his now trademark red and white suit (that matched the colors of their brand).
What’s your favorite Christmas song? If you named one of the classics, odds are that the song is somehow connected to New York, either being written by a New Yorker and/or composed in the city. Why is there such a high concentration of Christmas carols concocted in NYC? It’s not because New York is particularly high in Christmas spirit. But it does have a history of having an abundance of songwriters. From the late 1800s onward, New York was the center of the music industry, with its famed Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. Fun fact: ironically, a lot of the people who composed these classic Christmas songs were Jewish.
Here’s an incomplete list of Christmas songs composed in New York or by New Yorkers:
“A Holly Jolly Christmas” written by Johnny Marks
“Happy Holidays” written by Irving Berlin
“Home for the Holidays” written by Al Stillman and Bob Allen
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” written by Johnny Marks
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” written by Walter Kent
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” written by Eddie Pola and George Wyle
“Let It Snow” written Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” written by Johnny Marks
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” written by Johnny Marks
“Santa Baby” written by Philip Springer and Joan Javits
“Silver and Gold” written by Johnny Marks
“White Christmas” written by Irving Berlin
Did any of New York’s Christmas contributions surprise you? Which New York Christmas thing is your favorite?
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