Christmas TraditionsSanta Claus
As Christmas evolved in the United States, new customs were adopted and many old ones were reworked. The legend of Santa Claus, for example, had origins in Europe and was brought by Dutch settlers to New York in the early 18th century. Traditionally, Santa Claus—from the Dutch Sinter Klaas—was depicted as a tall, dignified, religious figure riding a white horse through the air. Known as Saint Nicholas in Germany, he was usually accompanied by Black Peter, an elf who punished disobedient children. In North America he eventually developed into a fat, jolly old gentleman who had neither the religious attributes of Saint Nicholas nor the strict disciplinarian character of Black Peter.
Santa’s transformation began in 1823, when a New York newspaper published the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which Clement Clark Moore had written to amuse his daughter. The poem introduced many Americans to the story of a kindly saint who flew over housetops in a reindeer–drawn sleigh. Portraits and drawings of Santa Claus by American illustrator Thomas Nast further strengthened the legend during the second half of the 19th century. Living at the North Pole and assisted by elves, the modern Santa produced and delivered toys to all good children. By the late 19th century he had become such a prominent figure of American folklore that in 1897, when Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking if Santa were real, she received a direct answer: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
While Santa Claus became increasingly familiar to Americans, the German Christmas tree also acquired popularity in North America. As early as the 17th century, Germans had transformed this pagan symbol of fertility into a Christian symbol of rebirth. According to legend, the Christmas tree tradition began with the founder of German Protestantism, Martin Luther. While walking through the forest on Christmas Eve, Luther was so moved by the beauty of the starlit fir trees that he brought one indoors and decorated it with candles to remind his children of God’s creation. In 1841 Prince Albert of Germany gave his wife, Queen Victoria of England, a gift of a Christmas tree. This was reputedly the first Christmas tree in England, but the custom spread quickly. German immigrants took the Christmas tree to other parts of Europe and to the United States and Canada, where it soon became a popular tradition. Blown-glass ornaments, tin angels, paper chains, candles, cornucopias filled with sugarplums, and other decorations made the simple evergreen tree into a beautiful parlor centerpiece at Christmastime.
The practice of exchanging Christmas cards also became a widespread custom in the 19th century. Europeans had distributed wood prints of religious themes for Christmas during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century). In 1843 English illustrator John Callcott Horsley created the first modern Christmas card. The card depicted a family celebration and its caption read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” In the United States, German-born printer Louis Prang made advances in color lithography that enabled him to mass-produce a colorful Christmas card in 1875. The card sold extremely well, and soon the custom of exchanging Christmas cards spread throughout the country.