How New York City Gave Us Many Present-Day Christmas Traditions

NYC Old fashioned Christmas

Members of the Salvation Army singing through megaphones at Christmas time, 42nd Street, New York City, USA, circa 1925. (Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos)

During the Christmas season, most people get caught up in the presents, but did you ever to stop to wonder about the holiday’s past? Believe it or not, many of our age-old traditions were actually born in New York City. Through savvy storytelling and mass distribution, America’s embrace of Christmas traditions is due to the miracle of holiday marketing. The New York Times shared many highlights of the holiday that have a history in New York City.

The Celebration of St. Nicholas
The man behind many timeless traditions of Christmas was New York City’s Washington Irving. In 1809, he was frustrated that America had few unifying holidays, so he created a reason for a festive season based on some English and Dutch traditions.

The result was his comic account of a Dutch time titled “A History of New York.” The fictional fable shared the story of a European figure named St. Nicholas, who was the gift-giving patron saint of the state. The story explained that St. Nicholas was so beloved that his image appeared on the masthead of the first Dutch ship to come to New York.

The Gift of a Story That Kept On Giving
Clement Clarke Moore, whose family owned the New York City neighborhood of Chelsea, spread the story. He’s credited with writing a poem for his daughters about this gift-giving saint called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”

While Mr. Moore used a number of elements from Mr. Irving’s comic story, he used his imagination to tie his tale to the spirit of Christmas. His poem depicted St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf, which he actually based on a stocky Dutchman he knew in the neighborhood. The poem went on to describe how St. Nicholas traveled with eight tiny reindeer, yet this was a far cry from the original Saint Nicholas, who lived in the area now known as Turkey during the fourth century. And despite the fact that St. Nicholas Day was traditionally celebrated on December 6, Mr. Moore’s poem explained how St. Nicholas and his reindeer visited with gifts on Christmas Eve in order to tie St. Nicholas to the Christmas holiday.

The poem was initially syndicated in New York’s The Troy Sentinel, but soon spread to newspapers across America.

Other Present-Day Christmas Traditions from New York City’s Past

The story of St. Nicholas soon captured the country’s imagination, which led New York City to create a number of other Christmas traditions, such as:

  • The sale of poinsettias to celebrate the holiday in 1870.
  • One of the very first public Christmas trees in 1912.
  • Santa’s seat of honor in the Thanksgiving Day parades, which were sponsored by Gimbel’s in 1920 and then Macy’s from 1924 through today.

As you celebrate the holiday, remember how many timeless Christmas traditions were actually gifts from New York City.

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