Friday, December 6, 2013

The Flemish Influence on Sinterklaas in America

On December 6th, children in Flanders receive gifts. These gifts ostensibly come from Sint Nicolaas – the individual we call “Saint Nicholas”. The festival and the main character are called (in Dutch) “Sinterklaas” – the original version of the American word that became “Santa Claus”. With the aid of his Moor assistant, Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), Sinterklaas delivers gifts to good children and leaves coal in the stockings of naughty children.

Most references to the origin of Sinterklaas in America point to New Netherland as the source of this custom. But most historians say that Santa Claus as a concept did not gain broad acceptance in the U.S. until well into the 19th century. Of course, since New Netherland was ostensibly Dutch, most writers and historians have assumed that the holiday was transported over by settlers from Holland. But for the hard-core Calvinists (the only religion officially permitted in New Netherland in the mid-17th century) such celebrations were at odds with the austere form of Christianity they practiced. The Sinterklaas tradition had strong Catholic origins, which of course made it anathema to 17th century convicted Calvinists. Fortunately for 21st century retail merchants, key members of the Dutch Reformed Church in Nieuw Nederland who had roots in officially Catholic Flanders, were unwilling to give up their cultural traditions.

One of these prominent individuals was Annetje Loockermans (whose story I have told earlier here). Annetje was the sister of Govert Loockermans, who was not only the richest man in North America when he died in 1670, but was also a prominent municipal leader and member of the Dutch Reformed (=Calvinist) Church in New Netherland. A 19th century writer/descendant (Mrs. Van Rensselaer) claims that Annetje Loockermans led the “petticoat government” of New netherland after she arrived here in 1642. Although Calvinists in America, Annetje, her brother Govert, and several of her other brothers were born and baptized Catholic at Sint Pieterskerk in the Brabantian town of Turnhout (part of today’s province of Antwerp). While growing up in Flanders, the Loockermans most certainly observed (outwardly) Catholic feastdays, since Turnhout remained officially (and exclusively) Catholic..

Once in America, Annetje married Olaf van Courtlandt and her children led the Netherlandic colony culturally, politically and economically. Her daughter Maria married Jeremias van Rensselaer who was the son of Kiliaen, the “patroon” or founder of Rensselaerswyck a feudal manor whose privileges later made it an anomaly in the egalitarian United States. Maria, who was according to a contemporary, beautiful but crippled, married at the age of 17. When her husband died unexpectedly, the young widow raised her children and kept the patroonship profitable. Naturally, like any daughter, she also kept the traditions alive she had picked up from her Flemish mother Annetje originating in Turnhout.

The earliest evidence of any practice related to Sinterklaas is found in the New York State archives. A surviving receipt from Wouter de Backer (Walter the Baker) to Maria van Rensselaer in 1675, (please see the embedded picture, 9th line from the bottom), says that in addition to cookies ("koeken"), Mrs. Van Rensselaer purchased 2 guilders and 10 stijvers worth of ‘sunterclaes’ (Sinterklaas) "goet" ["goodies"]. Please see an excerpt above and the actual scanned image here. It is from this discarded bakery receipt that America – and the world – finds the earliest reference to “Sinterklaas” in America.

Later, other descendants of Annetje Loockermans carried the Sinterklaas theme even further. Annetje’s son, the half-Flemish Stephanus, became the first native-born mayor of New York City. Stephanus’ great-great-great granddaughter was a young woman named Catherine Elizabeth Taylor. Catherine’s mother Elizabeth Van Courtlandt grew up in the tight-knit Upper Hudson Valley community and attended the Dutch-language church services of the Dutch Reformed Church. Although Catherine also married outside this Dutch-language community, her husband, Clement Clarke Moore, was keenly interested in the history and traditions of the settlers of New Netherland. He shared this interest with two other prominent friends: John Pintard and Washington Irving. Most historians trace the modern, popular appreciation of Santa Claus back to these three change agents: Clement Clarke Moore, John Pintard, and Washington Irving.

Washington Irving, while not descended from the settlers of New Netherland himself, grew up in Manhattan in the 1780s – at that time a place where a part of the population still spoke Dutch. When an epidemic hit New York City in 1798, Irving was invited to stay with a friend who lived near Sleepy Hollow, New York in the Upper Hudson Valley. There Irving and his close friend became fascinated with the local tales of the Dutch-speaking inhabitants. Soon afterwards they began transcribing and publishing these tales.
 In his 1809 book A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Washington Irving popularized these tales and coined such terms as “Gotham” and “Knickerbocker”.  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. In it St. Nicholas appears in dreams to Van Kortlandt. Irving also shares a description of St. Nicholas' Feast Day as celebrated by the Dutch-speakers of New Netherland (please see Washington Irving, Knickerbocker's History of New York, edited by Anne Carroll Moore; New York: Doubleday, 1959: especially pp. 27, 49-51, 58, etc. and pp. 95-100). 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).
While Washington Irving’s book – which became for that date and place a huge bestseller – first brought the concept of Sinterklaas to the wider American public, it took yet another man, Huguenot John Pintard, to crystallize the concept. Pintard was a merchant of untiring energy, whose wife was related to President James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth Van Kortright. Elizabeth was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Jan Baptiste van Kortryk, a Flemish immigrant to New Netherland from Kortrijk, West Flanders.

Pintard, is credited by some with establishing Washington’s birthday and July 4th as national holidays. He also proposed St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, as an alternate family holiday to the dangerous and debauched revelry then common 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. 

However, what really settled “Santa Claus” as the figure and Christmas as the holiday it has come to be, was the last gentleman in this trio: Pintard's friend Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, it is now believed, appropriated a poem first written by Henry Livingston and published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. Livingston’s 17th century ancestor in New Netherland was Robert Livingston, son of a a Scottish father and a woman whose name was “Mary Flanders”. Fluent in Dutch, Robert Livingston thrived first under the Dutch in New Netherland and, later after 1664, under the English at New York. Livingston’s wife was the widow of Nicolaus Van Rensselaer. He cemented his standing in New Netherland society when his grandson married a Van Courtlandt. Sadly, Henry Livingston, who died in 1828, never saw his poem become a global phenomenon.

Undoubtedly influenced by not only the enthusiastic reception of Irving’s book but the growing popularity of Pintard’s holiday, Moore published the iconic Christmas poem after its original author died in 1830. Moore gave us here in America the poem we know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" . It was this witty ditty that helped push the date we celebrate Christmas from the evening of December 5th/6th to December 25th. Cultural influences being what they are, Christmas is now celebrated even in non-Christian countries like Japan (albeit as a cultural, not a religious, holiday).

The Van Courtlandt family tradition of Sinterklaas – almost certainly originating in the maternal traditions of Tournhout native Annetje Loockermans – 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. Little did she realize the legacy she would leave for 21st century America and indeed the world.

So as you hum the latest Christmas jingle, bake your Christmas 'goodies', or scramble for those last minute gifts, take a moment to reflect, if you will, on the debt owed to a few hardy Flemish women in 17th century Nieuw Nederland who transmitted their cultural traditions to the world from Flemish Americans.

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.

This originally appeared in the Flemish American Blogspot Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written permission.

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