December 6, 2009

Menus: St. Nicholas Society Anniversary Dinner, Dec. 6th 1851

The St. Nicholas Society of New York was founded by a man named John Pintard.  Pintard was largely responsible for the invention of our modern Christmas traditions, along with society members Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore. These men were obsessed with the Dutch history of New York, and they appropriated St. Nick as New York City's patron saint.

I'm reading a fascinating book on Christmas traditions,  The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.  It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is a wonderful read this time of year.  Nissembaum outlines the transition of the Christmas holidays from a time of gluttony and drunkenness to a celebration of domesticity.  On the St. Nicholas Society and its members, Nissenbaum has this to say:

...It was John Pintard who brought St. Nicholas to America, in an effort to make that figure both the icon of the New York Historical Society and the patron saint of New York City....In the 1810s, Pintard organized and led elaborate St. Nicholas' Day banquets for his fellow members of the New York Historical Society...
In Holland, St. Nicholas brings toys to children on his saint's day, Dec. 6th.  Historically, this tradition was observed by upper class Dutch families.   The working class Dutch that immigrated to New Amsterdam did not bring this tradition with them.
...Nobody has ever found contemporaneous evidence of such a St. Nicholas cult in New York during the colonial period.  Instead, the familiar Santa Claus story appears to have been devised in the early nineteenth century...It was the work of a small group of antiquarian minded New York gentlemen--men who knew one another as members of a distinct social set.  Collectively, those men became known as the Knickerbockers...
In short, the Knickerbockers felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege.  From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise:  forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid "folk" identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic 'misrule' of early 19th century New York.
St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus with the aid of Clement Clark Moore's poem A Visit from St. Nicholas.

In the above menu, note the special "Knickerbocker" recipes, various traditional Dutch dishes.  Additionally, take note of the "Ornamental Confectionery."  These would have probably been sculpted out of marzipan.

For another piece of fascinating holiday ephemera, check out Charles Dickens's original manuscript of A Christmas Carol currently housed at the Morgan Library and Museum.  The New York Times has a high-resolution scan of the full manuscript online, and "The reader who spots the most intriguing textual change will be invited to tea at the Morgan Library and Museum."

Today is also the one year anniversary of this blog.  Thank you all for your support, encouragement, and enthusiasm.  This year has been so meaningful and wonderful, and I can't wait to see what the next twelve months will bring!