The modern Santa was born in the imagination of Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar who penned a whimsical poem about St. Nicholas, the patron of old Dutch New York, for the amusement of his six children at Christmastime. Soon after the publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas"—popularly known today by its opening line, "Twas the night before Christmas…""—St. Nicholas became a popular feature of American Christmas celebrations. Moore's poem permanently connected St. Nicholas to Christmas, and led to our idea of Santa Claus.
Santa's popularity, appearance and many of the holiday traditions that surround him owe much to the imaginative work of two other New Yorkers: Washington Irving, the creator of Knickerbocker's History of New York, and Thomas Nast, an artist whose drawings of Santa were reproduced all over the country in the years following the Civil War.
To celebrate the winter season, the New-York Historical Society is presenting It Happened Here: The Invention of Santa Claus, an installation tracing the modern image of Santa Claus, the red-suited, pot-bellied descendant of the medieval bishop St. Nicholas of Myra, which emerged only decades after the first Congress met in 1788 in Federal Hall in New York. The exhibition features Robert Weir's 1837 painting of a rather sly St. Nicholas and Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly cartoons of Santa. Clement Clarke Moore's desk is on display in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.
Video excerpt: The Santa Files with John Sergant (c) 2010 Fine Stripe Productions.