Thursday, December 23, 2010

Flemish American Origins of Santa Claus

It is the night before Christmas Eve. I had hoped to have completed for you a post that points to the Flemish Contributions to the idea and dissemination of Sinterklaas - as "Santa Claus" would have been known to our Flemish ancestors. Unfortunately, I have not fleshed out the references and the prose to the standard I aspire to, so this quick sketch will have to do.

It is worth recalling a few quick facts. Santa Claus as a concept did not gain broad acceptance in the U.S. until well into the 19th century. Most historians trace that back to three change agents: Clement Clarke Moore, John Pintard, and Washington Irving.

First, Washington Irving, while not descended from the settlers of New Netherland himself, resurrected the enthusiasm for the lives and history of those early settlers with his 1809 book A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. While intended as a satire, the book was remarkably detailed on New Netherland history, Dutch language and customs to pass as legitimate history to the masses. Moreover, Irving's prose (then and even today) was engaging enough to become a best-seller of the time (and to remain popular well into the 20th century).

Irving's story popularized St. Nicholas - pronounced Sinterklaas - from an obscure ethnic holiday celebrated by a shrinking circle of ethnic Dutch-speakers to something tied into New York's Dutch origins. In particular, and as it pertains to our story here, Irving focused on the interaction between St. Nicholas and the patriarch of the Van Courtlandt [although he spelled it "Van Kortlandt"] family. [1]

Next. John Pintard, a merchant of untiring energy, proposed St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, as an alternate family holiday to the revelry on New Year's Eve. A friend of Washington Irving - and founder of the New York Historical Society - Pintard began the revival of St. Nicholas with a St. Nicholas Society Dinner on December 6th, 1810 (the year after Irving's publication). Later, this evolved into the St. Nicholas Society of New York. [2]

The final rung in this climb back to our Netherlandic roots came through another friend of Pintard's: Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was himself not a descendant either of the settlers of New Netherland. However, his wife, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor, was. Although I am unaware of Moore explicitly crediting his wife, it seems unlikely that she did not - as wives are often likely to do - inspire her husband's work. And from whence did her wife derive inspiration? Likely through maternal family traditions.

Catherine Elizabeth Taylor's mother, Elizabeth Van Cortlandt, was the great-great-great grand daughter of Oloff Van Courtlandt and Annetje Loockermans. [3] It was Annetje Van Courtlandt who, as Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer has noted, brought culture and civilization to New Amsterdam after marrying Oloff Van Courtlandt in early 1642. [4]

For forty years Annetje Van Courtlandt nee Loockerman's home was the center of social life and she led the observance of holidays and customs from the Dutch-speaking part of the Low Countries. These traditions were transmitted through her direct descendants - which include Presidents (Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt), actors (the Fonda family, Montgomery Cliff), movie directors (Cecil B. DeMille), authors (Herman Melville), Chief Justices (John Jay), the wealthiest Americans (John Jacob Astor), Fathers of the Country (Alexander Hamilton and Hamilton Fish), as well as assorted governors, senators, congressmen, ambassadors, mayors and other luminaries. The Van Courtlandt family tradition of Sinterklaas became the Santa Claus tradition of today. It has now been passed on to later generations and is inseparably blended with the fabric of America.

The best part of all this was that this strong, fearless pioneer woman of taste and culture (who deserves to be numbered in the first tier of Flemish Mothers of America) was from Flanders. Annetje Loockermans was born in the town of Turnhout in the province of Antwerp in the land of Flanders on the 17th March, 1618. [5] Little did she realize the legacy she would leave for 21st century America and indeed the world. [6]

With that as backdrop, Gentle Reader, it seems only fitting that I leave you with the stanzas and illustrations that inspired the adoption by first American and then world popular culture of Santa Claus. The below text is courtesy of a superb website on the poem: "Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas"

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a minature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:

"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of Toys - and St. Nicholas too:

And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:

He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:

His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face, and a little round belly

That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

[1] Washington Irving, Knickerbocker's History of New York, edited by Anne Carroll Moore, (New York: Doubleday, 1959). See especially pp. 27, 49-51, 58, etc. [where St. Nicholas appears in dreams to Van Kortlandt] and pp. 95-100 [description of St. Nicholas' Feast Day as celebrated by the Dutch-speakers of New Netherland. Curiously, his only nods to Flanders are to redundantly claim that each of the pear-shaped characters in the story wore "Flemish hose" and reckon that the fines they received were in Flemish pounds (1 Flemish pound = 6 Dutch Guilders).

[2] Edwin G. Burroughs & Mike Wallace,"The Domestication of Christmas," in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 462-463. While this is an excellent account of Pintard's involvement - and the only one I am aware of - Burroughs & Wallace fail to tie the story back to New Netherland.

[3] Catherine Elizabeth Taylor (1794-1830)'s mother was Elizabeth Van Cortlandt (d. July 22, 1816) and her father was William Taylor, Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica. Elizabeth Van Cortlandt's parents were Philip Van Cortlandt (November 10, 1739-May 1, 1814) and Catherine Ogden. Philip's parents were Stephen Van Cortlandt (October 26, 1710-October 17, 1756) and Mary Walter Ricketts. Stephen's parents were Philip Van Cortlandt (August 9, 1683-August 21, 1746) and Catherine De Peyster. Philip's parents were Stephanus Van Cortlandt (May 7, 1643-November 25, 1700) and Gertrudj Van Schuyler. Stephanus' parents were Oloff Stevenszn Van Courtlandt and Annetje Loockermans. Annetje was born in Turnhout, Flanders. For the genealogy please see John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume II M-Z, (London: Henry Colburn, 1867), pp. 1360-1363; and John Thomas Scharf, History of Westchester County, New York, Volume I, Part I, (Philadelphia: L.E. Preston & Co., 1886), pp.115-138.

[4] Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta: At Home and in Society, 1609-1760, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898), p. 32 discusses how Annetje Van Cortlandt's home was the "center of the petticoat government" of New Netherland; p. 133 how others followed Mrs. Van Cortlandt's example with St. Nicholas Day; and p. 140 discusses how the Van Cortlandt's and other notable Dutch-speaking families perpetuated the St. Nicholas Day (and other) tradition through subsequent generations. Esther Singleton, Dutch New York, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909), pp.297-301 discusses the observance of St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands but with little concrete reference to New Netherland. However, she does suggest that the wife of the Flemish Reformed minister Drisius played a role [p.301].

[5] "In Turnhout worden de doopregisters bewaard van Godefridus Lokermans (2 juli 1612) en zijn zuster Anna (17 maart 1618), kinderen van Jacob Lokermans en Maria Nicasius. Ook hun broer Pieter (geboren 5 oktober 1614) liet sporen na in zijn geboorteplaats. In de Sint-Pieterskerk op de Grote Markt van Turnhout, waar Anna en Godfridus (De Latijnse naam Godefridus werd in het protestantse Noorden al snel Govert) gedoopt werden, rust nog steeds een van hun nazaten." My grateful thanks to Karl Van Den Broeck for this reference [e-mail dialogue October 10, 2010].

[6] Note that, to produce a sobering counterpoint, that the current historian of New Netherland, Jaap Jacobs, believes there is no evidence in the historical record to support the idea that Sinterklaas was celebrated in New Netherland. See Jaap Jacobs, New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in Seventeenth-Century America, (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p.471. To the esteemed Dr. Jacobs (whose work I admire a great deal - even though he ignores the Flemish contribution to Nieuw Nederland), my only retort is "Bah Humbug!"

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written consent.


  1. I had thought of suggesting this item to you for a blog post, knowing that you would find the Flemish angle. :-) (I remember joking that Santa Claus was probably among the first "products" ever imported by the Dutch speeking settlers. , seeing as St-Nicholas was the patron saint of the first church on Manhattan).

    I had never heard of Annetje Loockermans before reading this post, and had no idea that the Flemish contribution was this significant. Fascinating.

  2. Thank you very much Leo! Actually, I had a much more detailed writeup that I had worked on intermittently for several months but deadlines being deadlines (even if self-imposed) I had to cut it down to this. The contributions by the Loockermans family of Turnhout to Nieuw Nederland - and, indeed to America - are vast and impressive. Naturally, they are the subject of future posts!! Merry Christmas!

  3. Great article, David, and well documented as always. If I had read it sooner, I would have made a link to it on our website as well. A few weeks ago we took the children of our Dutch classes to Rockefeller Center here in Manhattan, where one of the tour guides gave them some fascinating insights on the origins of Santa Claus and on the figure of Sinterklaas. Merry Christmas to you and your family.
    Kris Dierckx

  4. Kris, Thanks very much. My apologies for the tardy release. By all means, if you wish to link it to the FHNY website I would be delighted (although of course Christmas will be past after the fact). But hopefully it can be a tie for the students next year. Merry Christmas Kris to you and yours and the whole Flanders House team!
    - David

  5. Dear David,

    Oh dear. It might be useful to make some points here.

    1. The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta is not a reliable work of historiography and neither adheres to modern standards of scholarship, nor to those of the age in which it was written. The passage on St. Nicholas on p. 133 pertains to the era after the English takeover in 1664, not before.

    2. The statement on p. 471 of my book, to which you refer, refers to the absence of traces of celebration of St. Nicholas in the original sources of New Netherland, i.e. documents written before September 1664. I have not found any. If you have, I would be delighted to hear it. Until that time, I am afraid that any hypothesis as to celebrations of this worthy saint prior to 1665 remains, unfortunately, humbug.

    3. As the Flemish presence in New Netherland, you may be interested in my article on the subject: “Nova Belgica?” in Neerlandia 113-2 (2009), 16-18.


    Jaap Jacobs

  6. Dear Dr. Jacobs,

    Thank you very much for your kind reply - even if it does not maintain me in my illusions :-D.

    A few counterpoints that I would offer for consideration.

    1. While Mrs. Rensselaer is hardly a historian I don't know that elements of her emphasis on the matriarchal influences in Nieuw Nederland can be dismissed out of hand. If anything, modern scholarship supports the tone of her work. cf, David William Voorhees, "Family and Factions: The Dutch Roots of Colonial New York's Factional Politics," in "Explorers, Fortunes & Love Letters: A Window on New Netherland", Martha Dickinson Shattuck, ed., (Albany: Mount Ida, 2009), pp.129-147. The St. Nicholas passage on p.133 occurs immediately after the English takeover in 1664 - i.e., December 6, 1664. Which of course suggests that the tradition in place before the English takeover that year.

    2. Janny Venema in her wonderful "Beverwijck", p.112 references a 1675 receipt from Annetje Lookerman's daughter, Maria Van Rensselaer, to a baker in 1675 for Sinterklaasgoet. I tend to agree with her conclusion that "The absence of the celebration in the records does not mean it was not celebrated....They are part of the unspoken activities of daily life."

    3. Thank you very much for directing me to your "Nova Belgica" piece which I have overlooked. I will eagerly seek it out.

    Very warm regards to you and yours for the New Year!

    David Baeckelandt

  7. And as a followup to the exchange above, this delightful reference to "Nicolaes Avont" (St. Nicholas' Eve) in Nieuw Nederland in 1648 - courtesy of Dr. Jaap Jacobs:

    "Jaap A. Jacobs, a Dutch historian from the Netherlands reminded me also that the first mention of Christmas Eve (Jaap writes that In Dutch, it is “Nicolaes avont”) was on April 18, 1648 and published in Arnold J.F. van Laer (trans. and ed.), Council Minutes, 1638-1649. New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch. Vol. 4. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p. 510-511:

    “Whereas Jems Hallett, at present a prisoner, has heretofore made bold to run away from the Company’s service without leave or permission and at Greenwich, within the jurisdiction of New Netherland, to steal divers goods; and furthermore has stolen a canoe from the Indians hereabout and therein, on St. Nicholas Eve, carried off a servant girl from her master’s house, for which misdeed and offense he, Jems Hallett, on the third of last March, was condemned by the honorable general and council to be brought to the place where justice is usually executed, there to witness the punishment which was then and there inflicted and, in order to make satisfaction for the stolen goods, etc. to saw during an entire year, on the condition that he should receive reasonable wages for said labor if he conducted himself well. “

    Sourced December 27 2010 from

  8. David,

    As a rejoinder, 1) this is Sint Nicolaes Eve, so the evening of December 5th, not of December 24th, which is Christmas Eve; 2) it is no proof of celebration, but only an indication of the day, like the day of the Amsterdam fair etc. But it is the only mention of Sint Nicolaes that I have ever found in the New Netherland sources.



  9. Jaap,

    Elisabeth Paling Funk had this guidance on the shift from December 5th/6th to December 25th:

    "Not [Washington] Irving but [John] Pintard and others are responsible for the shift of [Saint] Nicholas's celebration to Christmas Day in the latter 1800s."

    Elisabeth Paling Funk, "From Amsterdam to New Amsterdam: Washington Irving, the Dutch St. Nicholas, and the American Santa Claus," in "Explorers, Fortunes & Love Letters: A Window on New Netherland", Martha Dickinson Shattuck, ed., (Albany: Mount Ida, 2009), p.111.



  10. Would these be the same Van Cortlandts of The Bronx, NY?

    This is such an amazing read! And the artwork is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am from the Bronx, a stones throw from Van Cortlandt park. Who knew that there history also included how we celebrate Christmas? Not me...that's for sure.

  11. Hi Boschii! Yes, the Van Cortlandt Mansion and the Van Cortlandts of the Bronx are descendants of Oloff Van Cortlandt and Annetje Loockermans.

    Thank you for your very kind comments!!!

  12. What a fun post, David. While I defer to others on their factual commentary, personally, I enjoyed the history lesson and the wonderful images included in this timely holiday post.

  13. What a fun and informative post. It reminded me of a St.Nicholas memory that I just had to write about on my blog even though the season is over. I invite you to read..

  14. Art Economics History ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Happy Holidays