The Man who Brought Christmas to Albany – Santa Claus and the First U.S. Christmas Card

Christmas in Albany? Not so much.

The Dutch who settled in Albany celebrated St. Nicholas Day (St Nicholas was also known as Sinterklaas) with feasting and frolics in early December. Sinterklaas was a kindly religious figure in a red robe who brought presents and went down a chimney to fill stockings with presents. But the Dutch reserved Christmas for religious observances and then raised the roof on New Year’s Day, with much merry making and exchanging of gifts. The Protestant Germans who settled here in the 18th century did have a tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas Day and sometimes Christmas as well (the Germans pretty much rocked the whole month of December); such festivities were private –not for public display. BUT the English “Yankees” who came to Albany from New England in the 1700s were not big on Christmas revelry; that was hangover from the Puritans and the Mayflower who actually banned Christmas in the 1600s. At best a pagan ritual; worst case .. celebrating Christmas was blasphemy.

Even after the Revolutionary War, Albany didn’t really have its Christmas groove. But the idea of Christmas was catching on. By 1813 a few ads appear in newspapers for Albany stores selling Christmas as well as New Year’s gifts.

Washington Irving Wins the War on Christmas

Enter Washington Irving, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. In the early 1820’s Irving published five very popular stories about what Christmas was like in Merry Olde England (the English, at least in the Mother Country had transcended their aversion to Christmas). The stories describe holiday customs and traditions: feasting, gifts, mistletoe, music, family games, Yule logs and candles that resound with joy and merriment. Irving’s Christmas Eve is magical. In one of the stories, he makes an actual pitch for Christmas; the traditions are too beautiful to lose and winter is a cruel season – we NEED Christmas. Washington sealed the deal;. his descriptions were enticing and seductive- his descriptions flawless. Who didn’t want to celebrate Christmas? By 1822, the Troy Sentinel publishes “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a/k/a “The Night before Christmas”) by Clement Moore, an Episcopalian clergyman from Rhinebeck. Christmas is now officially a thing. But we still don’t have a Santa.

Irving had also done a splendid job of describing St, Nicholas Day in his first work, “A History of New York” in 1809; there were other pamphlets and books that told the St. Nicholas story. Over the next decade or so there are more stories about Christmas and St. Nicholas Day until the 2 holidays sort of merge into one. The merging is more of a process, rather than an event. The Dutch edge towards Christmas from St. Nicholas celebrations; the Yankees get the idea it’s ok to have fun on Christmas.. and the Germans, well, it was all good and Gemütlichkeit; Germans never need a reason to party.

The “Yankees” of Albany and New York appropriated the fun Dutch traditions for Christmas. Sinterklaas becomes Santa Claus; he’s described as a decidedly more English Falstaff-like guy.. his clerical robes are exchanged for a red suit and he becomes positively roly-poly. But we still don’t know what he looks like- there are no good pictures to accompany the written descriptions.

Enter Richard H. Pease
dRichard Pease was born in Connecticut in 1813. By the mid 1830’s he’d moved to Albany. Pease was a talented lithographer and engraver; also an amazing entrepreneur. In the late 1830s he established Pease’s Great Variety Store at 50 Broadway in Albany. If you wanted it, the Great Variety Store appeared to have it, especially as the “holydays” (holidays) of Christmas and New Year’s came around. Pease was a salesman, and he used his lithography skills to sell his merchandise. In 1842 the first image of Santa Claus as we know him today (almost) is printed in one of Pease’s ads. Pease clearly has read Santa descriptions from the previous decade; the Pease Santa is chunky, with a beard (not yet white) and suit. In his store ad, Santa is ready to climb down a chimney and there is a reindeer on the roof. His bishop’s miter had been traded for a peeked hat.

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Over the next decades other images of Santa emerge, some very creepy, but Pease’s image gets wide circulation in newspapers across the country for many years. His talent and imagination created the basis for an enduring image of Santa. Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist, creates the next iconic Santa for “Harper’s Weekly” (1880s), drawing on the Pease Santa. The Nast image is finally replaced as the official Santa in the 1930s when Coca-Cola creates a genius ad campaign in the 1930s Depression, designed to get people to drink more soda in the winter. Coke.. it’s not just for summer.

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Pease Strikes Again – the first American Christmas Card

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The Great Variety Store thrives. By the mid -1840s, Pease moves to a new building at 516 Broadway and opens The Temple of Fancy. Just the name makes you want to shop. It’s basically the ‘Emporium of Everything”. Still a marketing genius, in 1849, he decides to make a special card for Christmas, which is the first Christmas card produced in the Unites States. (The first card ever was created in England in 1843. Alas, Christmas cards don’t really catch on until Boston-based printer Louis Prang started selling color cards in 1875.

What Happened to Albany’s Marketing Genius?

The Temple of Fancy thrives and Pease creates a number of wildly popular children’s books and games. The Temple closes about 1853 when Pease moves on to another successful enterprise. In 1854 Pease purchases the Albany Agricultural Works, and operates it as the Excelsior Agricultural Works with his son Charles, who previously owned a similar business in Tivoli Hollow. It looks like they were quite successful and we are on the trail of a potential Pease patent for a potato planter.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor