This is St. Nicholas Day, a day when children in the Netherlands and across much of Northern Europe awake to find their stockings or shoes filled with candy, nuts, oranges, and small toys left behind in the night by the sanctified Bishop. It is also still observed in some American families, though the practice seems to be fading. Our three daughters always found their stockings filled until they were adults. It is also a good day to trot out Jolly Old St. Nicholas, America’s oldest secular Christmas song—if you discount Jingle Bells which was not intended to be linked to the holiday.
A traditional Catholic Feast Day in the West, it celebrates the day Nikolaos of Myra, the Greek Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor died in 346. He is one of the most important Saints in the Orthodox tradition as well and is venerated in Greece and especially in Russia where he is the national patron.
|St. Nicholas in a traditional Byzantine Orthox icon.|
But in the West Nicholas was revered as a patron of children and gradually morphed into the lanky, bearded Bishop in a red miter or cowl dolling out the goodies. In America he was ultimately transformed into Santa Claus with a workshop full of elves at the North Pole, a jolly cookie baking wife, and a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. And he makes his rounds on Christmas Eve, not on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Quite a transformation.
St. Nicholas came to North America with the Dutch settlers of New York and the Hudson Valley. He was alien to the rest of the colonies, especially in New England which frowned of Christmas and all things smacking of Bishops, Saints, and Popery.
By the post-Revolutionary era it had passed on to English residents of New York. Washington Irving, who preserved the old Dutch folk tales—and made more than a few up himself—noted that at some point prior to the 1820’s, St. Nicholas had shifted his gift giving to Christmas in areas of the Hudson Valley.
In 1823 a newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas that was later attributed to Clement Clark Moore. Within years it was being re-printed annually in newspapers across the United States. In the poem, Moore invented many of the “traditions” associated with St. Nicholas’s visit on Christmas Eve, including his reindeer and sleigh transport and a physical description of the jolly old elf that strips him of his Bishop’s regalia, dresses him in fur, and transforms him from a tall, regal figure to a rotund, bearded little man.
This new character was called Santa Claus, derived from the Dutch Sinterklass regionally, but remained better known as St. Nicholas through most of the following century. Thomas Nast’s mid-century cartoons helped define his appearance, including the fur trimmed cap instead of the miter, top hat, or cowl depicted in earlier illustrations. There was not much agreement on the color of his outfit, which was often pictured as brown fur trimmed in ermine or as green or blue, until the spread of cheap popular color lithography in which artists used the bishop’s red of Europe because it showed up so brilliantly.
Enter Emily Huntington Miller who submitted a poem called Lilly’s Secret to The Little Corporal Magazine in December 1865, just as Nast’s drawings were cementing the new vision of St. Nick and a war weary nation was eager to devote time and love to their families and children.
|Jolly Old Stl Nicholas on a tea box circa 1880--not yet our Santa Claus.|
In 1867 John Piersol McCaskey, a school principal and former Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania adapted Miller’s words with a few changes to music. McCaskey included the song and his songwriting claim in his 1881 book, Franklin Square Song Collection, No. 1 and noted that it had previously been published in 1874 in School Chimes, A New School Music Book compiled by hymnist James Ramsey Murray. McCaskey, by the way, is a direct ancestor of the ownership of the Chicago Bears. Make of that what you will.
By the late 19th Century the song was a parlor piano sing-along favorite and was a staple at the Christmas pageants that were becoming a fixture in public schools.
|Santa by Norman Rockwell.|
St. Nicholas, St. Nick, and Santa Claus were all commonly used, with St. Nicholas holding the edge until Santa Claus won out sometime around 1930 and popular magazine cover art and commercial art by the likes of Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post and Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola firmly fixed the modern image of the gift giver.
The song has been recorded many times beginning with Edison cylinders and early RCA discs. Among the more notable versions were by Ray Smith in 1949, Chet Atkins in 1961, Eddy Arnold in 1962, The Chipmunks in 1963, Andy Williams in 1995, Anne Murray in 2001, and Carole King in 2017. Perhaps the most commonly heard version was included in the Ray Conniff Singers 1963 album We Wish You a Merry Christmas.