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Father of contemporary Christmas
John Pintard played key role in holiday traditions

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John Pintard played key role in holiday traditions

And so it has come again, this day of festivity and frenzy, of "Joy to the World" and "Jolly Old St. Nicholas." The gifts have been unwrapped, the turkey stripped to the bones. The stockings have come down. The good wishes have been sent and received, the carols sung. Another Christmas, with all the warmth and magic it generates, is here.

And to think we owe it all -- or at least a lot of it -- to a man named John Pintard.Who? you might ask, and rightly so. This is not a name that appears frequently in the lexicon of Christmas heroes. Washington Irving, we know, Charles Dickens, Clement Clark Moore, Thomas Nast. But Pintard? His name should be linked with the rest. Pintard, as much as any other individual, is responsible for the Christmas we celebrate today, says author Mike Wallace. In their new book "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" (Oxford University Press, $49.95), Wallace and co-author Edwin G. Burrows document what they call "the domestication of Christmas."

"New York was an important crucible for our contemporary Christmas," said Wallace in a telephone interview from his New York home. We can thank the New Yorkers of the early 1800s for much that defines our celebration today. And foremost among them was a man named John Pintard.

Pintard was a civic-minded businessman, explains Wallace. He was a mover and shaker, a one man-whirlwind, the kind of "unofficial mayor" that many cities have.

He had made his money in stocks and in fact helped to found what became the New York Stock Exchange. He did not fare well, however, in the crash of 1792, and shortly after the turn of the century was working in insurance. But he was still very active in civic affairs, at one time exulting: "What a field our large city presents for active exertions & useful improvements."

"If institutions are the lengthened shadows of a man, Pintard has a very long shadow in New York," says Wallace. "He helped found many civic organizations, many that are still operating, including the New York Historical Society."

But then he seems to have disappeared. "You say his name today, and no one but a few scholars knows about him."

But back to Christmas.

"For 150-odd years, probably since the English conquest, the favorite winter holiday of the city's propertied classes was New Year's Day," notes Wallace, in the book. On that day, families exchanged small gifts, and gentlemen went about the town, calling on friends and relatives, sipping raspberry brandy and munching on cookies.

But by the early 1800s, Pintard lamented the fact that this "joyous older fashion" was dying out because the size of the growing city was making it increasingly impractical.

And so in 1810 Pintard proposed St. Nicholas Day as a "family-oriented winter holiday for polite society."

This was just one year after Pintard's good friend, Washington Irving, had published his "Knickerbocker's History," in which he identified Nicholas as the patron saint of New Amsterdam and describing him as a "jolly old Dutchman, nicknamed Sancte Claus, who parked his wagon on rooftops and slid down chimneys with gifts for sleeping children on his feast day."

St. Nicholas Day was Dec. 6. And on that day in 1810, Pintard launched his push for a revival of the celebration with a banquet at City Hall for members of the New York Historical Society. "The first toast was to 'Sancte Claus, goed heylig man!' and Pintard distributed a specially engraved picture that showed Nicholas with two

children (one good, one bad) and two stockings hung by a hearth (one full, one empty)," writes Wallace, "the point being that Dec. 6 was a kind of Judgment Day for the young, with the saint distributing rewards and punishments as required."

The push for St. Nicholas Day never received quite the support Pintard was looking for, but Santa Claus "took off like a rocket," says Wallace.

Meanwhile, the New York elite began taking a second look at Christmas as a substitute for New Year's Day. "Since the reformation, Protestants had dismissed Christmas as another artifact of Catholic ignorance and deception," notes the author. New England churches had already begun a movement pushing for public worship on Dec. 25 as a way to counteract "popular rowdyism."

Washington Irving's "Sketch Book" published in 1819 added to this notion, by depicting Christmas as a cozy domestic ritual. All that remained was for the two ideas to be combined: the idea of Sancte Claus giving rewards to good girls and boys and the festivities of Christmas.

This was the achievement of another of Pintard's friends, Clement Clarke Moore, who in the winter of 1822 published his now-famous "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

"Moore's saint was an obvious derivative of Irving's," says Wallace. The "right jolly old elf" landed on the rooftop, snuck down the chimney to put toys in stocking hung by the children. "Moore had him arrive on Dec. 24, however, a small revision that deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious association."

Within a decade the whole country knew the story. New Yorkers -- and others -- "embraced Moore's homey, child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives." And by 1831, Pintard himself, no longer pushing for St. Nicholas Day, declared that the new rituals of Christmas were "ancient usage" and that "St. Claas is too firmly riveted on this city ever to be forgotten."

And almost immediately, says Wallace, the commercialization of Christmas began.

"New York City was a market town. And all kinds of stores were opening: luxury stores, jewelry stores, book stores. But this was still a period of republican frugality and the idea of buying luxurious things still frowned upon." Now an occasion presented itself worthy of gift-giving. The first advertisements specifically geared to Christmas gifts began appearing in magazines and newspapers in the 1850s and '60s.

"To the degree that Christmas has gotten commercial, that it has jumped into bed with commerce -- it all goes back to this period," says Wallace.

And to the extent that we try to keep it a family centered, cozy celebration, well, those roots go back to this period as well.

There were other influences as well, of course, other sources of many of the Christmas customs we celebrate today.

You can't discount the influence of Charles Dickens, for example, says Wallace. The emergence of the middle class family, the retreat from public to private celebrations presided over by the virtuous Victorian mother, the idea that Christmas is a holiday for these new middle-class households -- these ideas found in Washington Irving are all ideas Dickens picks up on as well. "You might say Irving and Dickens were sipping the same punch," says Wallace.

Christmas would grow and evolve and change. But the holiday as we know it owes much to the New York elite of the early 1800s and to men like John Pintard. And although we don't remember his name much, he would probably be pleased at the holiday we have. "The further I go down the hall of life," he once said, "the more I rejoice in the retrospect of being a coadjutor in some of our great benevolent and charitable institutions and that when I depart -- it will cheer me that I am leaving the world better than I found it."