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The Politics of St. Nicholas, American Style

By December 6, 2014 No Comments

Well, all of you who have been good little boys and girls found a little something in your shoe this morning, no? Your wooden shoe. Which you left outside your door (alternatively, next to your fireplace) last night for Sinterklaas to fill with a coin and some goodies. For today is the good saint’s day, and last night he and his helper/s dropped by to do what Americans think happens on Christmas Eve. Another sign of American ignorance. But then, what can you expect of a people who only learn geography, so said Mark Twain, by going to war? You, by contrast, honorable reader, have picked up enough of the Dutch lore behind the Sinterklaas routine simply from hanging around The 12 site. Call it a contact-low, as in Low Countries.

Sinterklaas gives us a head-start on the controversies of the season because historically he’s accompanied by Zwarte Piet, i.e., Black Peter, and Zwarte Piet in most iterations of his appearance looks black indeed. Really black. Black-face black, as in minstrel-show insult. This despite his historical provenance in North Africa, which should make his appearance “Arabic,” deep Mediterranean tan. Oddly, that location lends some historical warrant to the role ZP’s assigned in the classic Dutch scenario, namely to stuff the kids who have been bad in a sack and schlep ‘em down to Morocco. The historical memory here being that of roughly one million Europeans from Italy to Iceland whom Moorish corsairs captured into slavery across the long Middle Ages. A typical destiny was galley slave (think John Smith of Jamestown fame), but as a Dutch parent you could hint of other fates for your own whining, trying progeny. Hey, whatever it takes in the child-discipline department, right?

Now St. Nicholas of Turkish origin was celebrated over the centuries for a generosity of spirit and action that hinted more than a little of a preferential option for the poor. What happened when he crossed the Atlantic to change from Sinterklaas to the American Santa Claus? Well, lots of things, but of interest here is the question of how this happened. More exactly, by whose hand? It happened by way of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” perhaps the most widely recited poem ever written in America, published anonymously in 1823 but coming from the pen of Clement Moore. More precisely, the esteemed Episcopal clergyman and Professor of Divinity and Oriental Languages at that denomination’s General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement Clarke Moore. The esteemed and extremely rich, etc., etc., Clement Moore, his wealth being evidenced by his donation of the land in lower Manhattan upon which GTS still stands today, plus much of the adjoining neighborhood of Chelsea. And where did that lucrative estate come from? From his maternal grandfather, Thomas Clarke, a British major in the French and Indian War who stayed on in the colonies after hostilities were over and invested in Manhattan real estate. Stayed invested as well in loyalty to the British Crown, as did his wife Mollie, who apparently let her opinions be known before and even after their mansion was burned in 1776, notwithstanding the death of her husband just days later. That is, the author of the best known American poem, the verse which stands at the head of the American Christmas canon, was an heir to outright Loyalists. Tories. And decidedly not a self-made man or any other kind of “maker” in the business world that makes America America.

Moore’s own political opinions stayed way on the right in the early republic too. Before he wrote his great poem, he issued two polemical pamphlets against Thomas Jefferson. He also spoke out against the expansion of the City road grid, right through his Chelsea properties, and against the rising popular movements for public schools, temperance, and the abolition of slavery. When his arch-Federalist politics were frustrated by the demise of that party, Moore turned to the High Church option in religion. He donated the land for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, adjacent to GTS, and single-handedly funded its building expansion in the 1830s on a Gothic plan. It was one of the very first structures built in that style in the United States, and a harbinger of thousands more to come. Clement Clarke Moore, in short, might be the least known most influential figure in American religious history: a progenitor of the religious architectural style that still breathes “real religion” to millions of Americans, and progenitor as well of Santa Claus. Not to mention compiler of the first Hebrew dictionary in the USA. All this from a barely reconstructed Tory aristocrat who held himself high above the people.

But in that aristocracy’s way, Moore came down to visit the people with avuncular grace. Think of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” as Papa on Downton Abbey penning a clever, sentimental poem to read to his children around the hearth on Christmas Eve, then letting it waft o’er the plains and prairies to comfort and inspire good little boys and girls everywhere. C’mon, you gotta love it. And it takes our eyes off Zwarte Piet.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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