From quaint Hudson Valley winter wonderlands to the tree in Rockefeller Plaza, there is no place like New York in December. But have you ever considered the origin of Christmas and the traditions that surround it here in America? Why is Miracle on 34th Street set in New York and not Boston or Philadelphia? New York and Christmas go together like cookies1 and milk. Let’s explore the origins of Christmas, its traditions, and New York’s influence on American Christmas celebrations.
Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. December 25th is the customary date which Christmas is celebrated but it was most likely not the actual date of his birth. Although the specific origins are unclear, the date was selected in 221 A.D. by Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian historian, and probably as a Christianization of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.
Christmas was not always, as the carol says, “merry and bright.” Traditions throughout medieval Europe evolved but remained religiously centered. The holiday was marked by church attendance, depictions of The Nativity, singing of carols (essentially hymns), and the decoration of church and homes with greenery.
In the early part of the Middle Ages the nativity was often static. The static Nativity scene gave way to the first reenactment of The Nativity, or “Nativity Play.” The play was staged by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 outside of his church.2 Francis envisioned his play as a teaching tool rather than a decoration and welcomed children to take part in or explore the display. The Nativity Play was usually accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols. Throughout the centuries the play developed and some of the details became hazy. For example: The three Magi who visited the infant Jesus are commonly depicted in modern plays as arriving the night of Jesus’ birth. According to Matthew 2:1-12 the Magi arrive some days after the birth of Jesus. This feast day, now known as “The Epiphany,” is typically celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas. The gap between Christmas and The Epiphany lead to the “12 days of Christmas” and celebration of Twelfth Night and Three Kings Day. Despite some minor inaccuracies (which St. Francis would probably be okay with) the play is still commonly performed all over the world.
The use of greenery during the darkest months of the year was not a uniquely Christian tradition. It even predates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The Romans celebrated their solstice festival, Saturnalia, by decorating with holly as early as the 5th century B.C.E.3 The Christmas tree’s origin is shrouded in legend. The fir was particularly popular in Scandinavia where winters were punishingly harsh. The evergreen’s quiet endurance of some of the most unforgiving conditions humanity could face was viewed as a source of strength. They were cut down and brought inside with the hopes of imparting their gifts to the inhabitants of the home. Considering that Christian evangelists did not reach Scandinavia until, at the earliest, 800 C.E., it is possible that this tradition dates back thousands of years. These traditions continued as Scandinavia Christianized, eventually including decorations of straw and food. By 1500 Germanic people were also bringing evergreen trees inside. Trees were usually trimmed to fit through doorways. To avoid waste, the trimmings were fashioned into wreaths. By the 1850s, thanks to the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who helped popularize them in the U.K. and United States, Christmas Trees decorated with red apples, popcorn strings, and various decorations (commonly straw or glass) became a holiday staple.4
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries reshaped Christmas. Protestantism, unlike Roman Catholicism, did not support the veneration of saints, or the celebration of feast days on a saint or martyr’s birthday. Protestants felt that if saints and martyrs were to be venerated, it should be only on the dates of their deaths, which were viewed as their birth into eternal life (many saints and martyrs are celebrated on the date of their deaths in Roman Catholicism as well). Good Friday (the date of Jesus' crucifixion) and Easter (the date of his resurrection) were, and are, far more important liturgically. As Christmas gained in popularity, Protestants generally rejected it. Despite Jesus’ divinity, the idea of celebrating a birthday did not make sense. The English Puritans were so staunchly anti-Christmas they went so far as to ban the celebration in 1659 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.5
In New York, traditions were a bit different. A Protestant nation brought a Catholic saint’s day to the New World. Dutch settlement along the Hudson River dates back to the 1610s. As New Netherland expanded, Dutch settlers brought their culture and traditions with them, including a beloved holiday for children: Saint Nicholas Day.
St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on December 6, the date that the real St. Nick died in 343 C.E. Dutch tradition states that St. Nicholas (known in the Netherlands as Sinterklaas) travelled the countryside on horseback checking in on children and referencing his "golden book," the precursor of Santa’s “naughty or nice list.” Children left their shoes out, usually near a fireplace or window in hopes that Sinterklaas would pay them a visit. He made sure that children were well behaved and said their prayers. Good children received a small trinket, cookies, or candy in their shoes; poorly behaved children received a lump of coal or even a bag of salt. Children left a carrot or saucer of water for St. Nicholas’ horse, named either Schimmel or Amerigo.6 For the Dutch, Christmas was not a gift giving holiday. Christmas was a religious feast day and was not nearly as popular as St. Nicholas Day, or even New Year's.
18th century Christmases looked very different depending on where you looked. New England held to its puritanical roots and did not celebrate in a major way. The Colonial South was a different story. Southern colonies, like Virginia, were founded primarily by Anglicans who made merry at Christmas time.7 Christmas day itself was rather subdued while religious customs were observed. Festive celebrations began the following day. While you would not find a Christmas tree at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home it was not uncommon for revelers to attend raucous parties and feasts culminating in the Twelfth Night ball on January 6th!8
Food was a crucial part of 18th century celebrations and unlike modern times it was extremely seasonal. A 1729 publication of The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion describes a December feast:
"For December. First Course. Westphalia-Ham and Fowls, Soop with Teal, Turbot with Shrimps and Oysters, Marrow Pudding, Chine of Bacon and Turkey, Batallio-Pye, Roasted Tongue and Udder, and Hare, Pullets and Oysters & Sausages, etc., Minced Pyes, Cod's Head with Shrimps.
Second Course. Roasted Pheasants, and Partridges, Bisque of Shell-fish, Tansy, Dish of roasted Ducks and Teals, Jole of Sturgeon, Pear-Tart creamed, Dish of Sweetmeats, Dish of Fruit of Sorts."
The 18thcentury gave rise to a festive social holiday during the Christmas season, but it was Twelfth Night that was the primary celebration, not Christmas itself. The middle Atlantic colonies found themselves somewhere in the middle, torn between puritanical yuletide stoicism in New England and the boisterous frivolities of the South’s Twelfth Night.
So how does New York span this gap? With a bridge guarded by a fearsome specter, The Headless Horseman! Washington Irving famously wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” however these were not published individually. They were both a part of a compilation of short stories entitled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., often referred to as The Sketchbook. The first edition of The Sketchbook was published in serialized fashion between 1819-1820. It was a massive success. Irving galloped to fame across the English-speaking world and effectively put America on the map as a cultural tour de force.
Hidden among the pages of later editions of “The Sketchbook” were a series of loosely connected stories. “Christmas,” “The Stage Coach,” “Christmas Eve," “Christmas Day,” and “The Christmas Dinner,” were romanticized depictions of the Christmas that Irving spent at Aston Hall in Birmingham, hosted by the Bracebridge family while he was traveling in England in 1821. In 1822 Irving went on to publish an entirely separate book entitled Brace Bridge Hall, or The Humorists, A Medley.
While staying with the Bracebridge family at Aston Hall, Irving claimed to be exposed to pastoral English traditions such as a Yule log, greenery, and ornaments. He described foods like steamed Christmas pudding, fruitcake, and other Medieval-style desserts that were part of the celebrations among the wealthy English in the countryside. Irving enjoyed great success from his works of fiction, and they were just that, fiction.
The traditions described in the “Brace Bridge Hall” tales are of English country Christmases. Aston Hall is in the heart of Birmingham, one of England’s larger cities. In the 19th century the traditions Irving recorded were fading from regular practice. He even described the customs with words like “odd” and “outdated.” Did Irving actually witness these events? In a later edition of “The Sketchbook” he admitted that he had not.9 That is not to say that the traditions never existed, only that he never partook of them. It mattered little because during the 19th century interest in the medieval period of Europe was gaining popularity and the original Knickerbocker viewed himself as a historian. Irving founded the St. Nicholas Society in 1835 to preserve and venerate New York’s Dutch heritage. The mainstream success of Irving’s romantic depictions of Christmas at Aston Hall with the Bracebridge family helped to revive many of the traditions we associate with Christmas today.
Irving wrote of equality, joy, and generosity:
“It [Christmas] brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls of castles and manor houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality.”10
Of games and decoration:
“As we approached the house, we heard the sound of music, and now and then a burst of laughter… from the servants hall where revelry was permitted. Here were kept up the old games of…bob apple, snap dragon. The yule clog [log], and Christmas candle, were regularly burnt, and the misletoe [sic] with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”11
Of decadent feasts:
“The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance, in this season of overflowing larders.”12
Irving even wrote of ghost stories told around the table after the feast:
“His picture [the crusader]… was thought to have something supernatural about it… on midsummer eve, when it is well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies, become visible and walk abroad, the crusader used to mount his horse, come down from his picture, and [ride] so to the church to visit the tomb; on which occasion the church door most civilly swung open itself…”13
Irving’s tales of the glory of Christmas were so far reaching they even inspired a young writer in England to write a scary ghost story of his own. When "Brace Bridge Hall" was first published, Charles Dickens was only eight years old. He would go on to make a name for himself as an author and even built a relationship with Washington Irving. In 1841 Dickens wrote to Irving and specifically referenced the tales of Christmas by saying “I wish to travel with you… down to Brace Bridge Hall.”14 A year later, in 1842, Dickens visited Irving in the United States. Little is known of their meeting. However only a few months later, in 1843, just in time for December, Dickens hastily published A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Today known as A Christmas Carol.
Irving’s influence over Dickens is very apparent in several sections of the story. Fezziwig’s party and the foods feasted upon are described very similarly to the “Christmas Dinner” allegedly witnessed at Aston Hall. Irving’s New York Dutch influence is apparent as well in the description of Scrooge’s fireplace.
The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the scriptures. [ed. note: see the Biblical fireplace at Philipse Manor Hall!]
Even the concept of, as Dickens called it a “ghostly little book”15 as a Christmas story is directly influenced by Irving’s writings in The Sketchbook. It was a runaway best seller that helped shape British (and American) concepts of Christmas for generations to come.
Around this same time another New Yorker by the name of Clement Moore was helping Americans rethink St. Nicholas. His poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, published in 1823, largely redefined the habits of St. Nick from the Dutch Sinterklaas and characterized him as the Santa we know and love today. Today, the poem is known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Although neither St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas nor Santa Claus make an appearance in A Christmas Carol or The Sketchbook, and did Irving not single handedly create Christmas as we know it, the ideas and traditions mentioned by both authors: selflessness, gift giving, decorations, making amends, feasting, generosity, and warmth during a dark time of year are all synonymous with the season we now call Christmas.
"Santa's New York Roots" by Megan Margino for the New York Public Library, 2015.
"The New York City Origins of Santa Claus" by the New-York Historical Society, 2018.
"How Washington Irving Introduced Americans to Santa Claus" by Historic Hudson Valley, 2019.
"A Short History of Christmas for New Yorkers" by Peter Hess for New York Almanack, 2022.
"In the 1800s, a group of NYC artists and writers created the modern-day Santa Claus" by Lucie Levine for 6SqFt New York City, 2023.
 In fact, Americans use the word “cookie” instead of “biscuit” because of the Dutch New York influence.
 Collins, Ace. Stories behind the great traditions of Christmas. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p. 74.
 Collins, Ace. Stories behind the great traditions of Christmas. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p. 67-69.
 Brooke, John L. The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 1 (1998): 192–94.https://doi.org/10.2307/2674352.
 Irving, Washington, 1783-1859., “Christmas”, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. No. 1. New-York : Printed by C.S. Van Winkle, 1822, p. 171-172.
 Irving, Washington, 1783-1859.,“Christmas Eve”, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. No. 1. New-York : Printed by C.S. Van Winkle, 1822, p. 184.
 Irving, Washington, 1783-1859., “The Christmas Dinner”, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. No. 1. New-York : Printed by C.S. Van Winkle, 1822, p. 209.
 Irving, Washington, 1783-1859., “The Christmas Dinner”, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. No. 1. New-York : Printed by C.S. Van Winkle, 1822, p. 215.
 W. C. Desmond Pacey. “Washington Irving and Charles Dickens.” American Literature, vol. 16, no. 4, 1945, pp. 332–39. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2920718. Accessed 21 Dec. 2023.
 Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870. A Christmas Carol and Other Stories. New York: Modern Library, 1995, preface.
John Farrell is the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site education coordinator.