A sketch of 14th Street at Christmas Time. Shinn, Everett, 1876-1953, artist

Christmas Traditions with New York State Roots

There’s nothing like Christmas in New York. While that statement may conjure up images of Rockefeller Center and 34th Street, all of New York – from the high peaks of the Adirondacks to the far West of the state – is steeped in holiday tradition.

In fact, many of the traditions that are integral parts of the Christmas experience across the nation have roots in the towns and cities of New York State. From Santa Claus to illuminated trees, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the many contributions from the Empire State.

Read on to see if you knew all of these traditions began in New York.

Electric Christmas Tree Lights

Inventor and business partner of Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson, is widely credited as the first person to light up a Christmas tree with electric lights. Before the advent of electricity, Christmas trees were traditionally illuminated with candles, which were both fleeting and dangerous.

In 1882, Johnson – Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, the forerunner of Con Edison – ordered 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs about the size of walnuts to be strung together. He wrapped them throughout his Christmas tree at his home in New York City, and also used electricity to make the tree rotate.

An early advertisement for Christmas tree lights from 1901.

An early advertisement for Christmas tree lights from 1901.

The move gained the attention of national papers, and the tradition spread as electricity became more widely available and people less suspicious of it. In 1895, Grover Cleveland became the first President to have an electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House, and Edison General Electric Company began mass-producing them for consumers in 1901.

Santa Claus

While New York can’t lay sole claim to the invention of the contemporary icon of Christmas, several New Yorkers made significant contributions to Santa’s modern image and his immense popularity.

A man portraying Santa Claus, c.1895

A man portraying Santa Claus, c.1895

In an early nineteenth century edition of his widely read satirical work, A History of New York, Washington Irving referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New Amsterdam. He painted a picture of a jolly old man nicknamed Sancte Claus, who slid down chimneys with gifts for children on St. Nicholas’ day.

In fact, residents of New York had been celebrating St. Nicholas long before Irving wrote about him (though Irving’s characterization was unique at the time). Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley celebrated Sinterklaas on December 6, the day of the St. Nicholas’ Feast as far back as 300 years ago. The tradition is still alive and well in Rhinebeck and Kingston, and is worth experiencing!

The Night Before Christmas and Santa’s Reindeer

For a time, Sancte Claus was associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. It wasn’t until New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore penned what authors Burrows and Wallace refer to as “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” that St. Nicholas became a part of the Christmas holiday.

A friend of Moore’s sent “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to the Troy Sentinel, which published the piece on December 23, 1823, beginning with the memorable lines,

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Moore also established the names of the original eight reindeer:

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;

Of course, “Dunder and Blixem” (Dutch for thunder and lightning) were replaced with their German counterparts, Donder and Blitzen, in an 1844 reprint of the poem, and those were the names that stuck.

Nearly 100 years later, a ninth Reindeer was added to the team, when Robert May (born and raised in New Rochelle, New York) wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for a Chicago-based department store, Montgomery Ward.

In 1949, May’s brother-in-law, New York composer Johnny Marks, turned the story into a song, which hit number 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart that Christmas.

There are certainly more Christmas traditions that began in New York – if you can think of any, share your knowledge with us in the comments!

From everyone at the NYG&B, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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4 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions with New York State Roots

  1. toni

    “He wrapped them throughout his Christmas tree at his home in New York City, which also rotated.”
    Now that’s a house I would like to have seen!

    Reply
  2. Susan Simonson

    Nice article. Quick question – I may have missed it in the article but what is the name of the painting with the cart being pushed and the artist. Thanks.

    Reply

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