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Jeremy Seal: Just Another Displaced New Yorker (Santa)

[Jeremy Seal is the author of "Nicholas: The Epic Journey From Saint to Santa Claus."]

A Cincinnati newspaper announced in 1844 that "the sterling old Dutchman, Santa Claus, has just arrived from the renowned regions of the Manhattoes," or Manhattan, "with his usual budget of knickknacks for the Christmas times."

Manhattan is where Santa Claus, the secular re-imagining of St. Nicholas, first emerged care of canny cultural nostalgics among the city's lettered and business classes, most notably Clement Clarke Moore. But he later relocated to the North Pole or, in the European tradition, to Lapland in northern Scandinavia. Santa's migration north allows us a fascinating insight into the 19th century's preoccupation with the high latitudes, while period winter details furnish the man with many of his trappings. ...

The Cincinnati newspaper report confirms that Santa's territory was rapidly expanding in the mid-19th century. But so was his home city. As New York's street grid pushed northward starting in the 1830's, the rural landscapes that had inspired Clement Clarke Moore's enchanted whimsy transformed into slum tenements where liquor dens and flophouses proliferated. The transcendent Santa could not be accommodated indefinitely by this increasingly urbanized space. A New York residency further required an actual address, entailing convoluted explanations to the children. It was time for Santa to leave the city, not for Brooklyn or the suburbs, but for the North Pole.

It was a time when the frozen north pressed hard against the public imagination, with Coleridge's poetry and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" evoking the unearthly allure of the Arctic sublime. The preoccupation intensified in 1818, when the British government reiterated its offer of £20,000 for the discovery of the Northwest Passage, setting off a new age of American Arctic exploration just as Santa was emerging on the scene. That New York was an important staging post for many such expeditions, with the ill-fated Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin first passing through the city for Canada in the 1820's, perhaps made it inevitable that Santa and the far north, two topical cold-climate ideas, should eventually entangle.

Of all the epithets coined for the Arctic regions, none was more common than the North Pole. Explorers heading for the Arctic were considered to have left for the North Pole, though the truth was that nobody at the time had come anywhere near the literal top of the world. So long as 90 degrees north remained beyond physical reach, the North Pole functioned instead as an evocative abstraction for the Arctic regions in general, free to serve the furthest flights of fancy. It served as home to Hans Christian Andersen's snow queen (1845), whose ice palace was situated "high up toward the North Pole."

Two decades later, in 1866, a Christmas illustration in Harper's Weekly captioned "Santa Claussville, N.P.," confirmed that Santa had followed the snow queen north. ...
Read entire article at NYT