Thursday, December 5, 2013

"A right fat, jolly, roistering little fellow" - Irving, Paulding, Saint Nicholas

It's Saint Nicholas' Eve, which means that in Holland - and in plenty of other places, too - Sinterklaas celebrations are in full swing. I'm paying brief homage to the Dutch part of my heritage by gesturing to the development of Saint Nicholas in the New World in works by early American writers - specifically Washington Irving and James Kirke Paulding. Yes, little Saint Nick was a popular chap amongst the Knickerbocker set.

Last year, I hinted at Irving's significance to the development of Victorian Christmas celebrations. He was no less formative in shaping the image of Saint Nicholas in America, not least because his rendition of the figure is often credited as a clear influence on Irving's friend Clement Clarke Moore when he came to write the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823), better known by its first line, "'Twas the night before Christmas...". Saint Nicholas, patron saint of New Amsterdam, features heavily in Irving's comic A History of New York (1809), his first major work (beloved of Walter Scott before the two even met, no less). Here's Irving's description of today's festivities as they persisted in America:
"At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children [...] [I]n the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass he never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents."
It's interesting that Irving clearly keeps the association between the evening of December 5th and the gift giving that still takes place in Holland today, a link that was apparently broken - or complicated - by the time of Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas" in 1823.

James Kirke Paulding's much less famous The Book of Saint Nicholas (1836) - intended, I wonder, as a holiday gift book? - has generated little comment over the years. But it's certainly no less interesting when it comes to charting the journey from Dutch Colonial Saint Nicholas to American Santa Claus. Across a number of stories, Paulding expounds at length on the figure and the traditions associated with him:
You will please to understand, gentle reader, that being a true descendant of the adventurous Hollanders who first discovered the renowned island of Manhattan which is every day becoming more and more worth its weight in paper money I have all my life been a sincere and fervent follower of the right reverend and jolly St. Nicholas [...] I have never, on any proper occasion, omitted doing honour to his memory by keeping his birthday with all due observances, and paying him my respectful devoirs on Christmas and New Year's Eve. From my youth upward I have been always careful to hang up my stocking in the chimney corner, on both these memorable anniversaries.
Indeed, Paulding claims that it was Saint Nicholas himself - "a right fat, jolly, roistering little fellow" - who delivered part of the manuscript that follows into his hands on "a roll of ancient vellum." In many other ways, he is apparently very happy to embellish and play with Old World legends in ways that produce compelling versions of the figure for an antebellum American audience:
"I say, everybody knows the excellent St. Nicholas, in holyday times, goes about among the people in the middle of the night, distributing all sorts of toothsome and becoming gifts to the good boys and girls in this his favourite city. Some say that he comes down the chimneys in a little Jersey wagon; others, that he wears a pair of Holland skates, with which he travels like the wind; and others, who pretend to have seen him, maintain that he has lately adopted a locomotive, and was once actually detected on the Albany railroad [...] My own opinion is, that his favourite mode of travelling is on a canal, the motion and speed of which aptly comport with the philosophic dignity of his character."
Happy Saint Nicholas (and Happy Christmas, too, if this is the last post of 2013).

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