The Author's Prank
By Dan O'Donnell
December 2, 2021
America is built on its traditions, and at no time of the year is this more apparent than Christmas, when shared customs passed down for generations form the basis of modern celebration. But one of America’s most beloved Christmas traditions arose almost by accident.
This is the Forgotten History of the Author’s Prank.
Young Washington always wanted to be a writer. Born in New York the same week his city learned of the final British surrender that ended the Revolutionary War, he was named after his mother’s beloved general.
Yet amid the fervent excitement of creating a new nation, young Washington preferred to escape to the adventure and mystery of his favorite English novels. He longed to write fiction and tell fantastical tales about America, especially the colony of New York he so adored.
Washington’s parents encouraged his writing, but were sensible enough to push him to pursue a career in the law just in case. A year after barely passing his bar examination, though, Washington grew tired of the tedium of his law practice and again dreamed of escaping to worlds of fantasy that he created.
He founded a satirical literary magazine in 1807 and even penned an essay giving New York City the nickname “Gotham,” from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town.” His reputation as a writer was growing, but he still longed to write something bigger, something more fantastical.
In 1809, he authored his first book, a satirical look at his city entitled, “A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.” But he didn’t publish it under his own name; he used the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. Shortly before the novel was to be published, Washington sought some publicity by taking out missing persons ads in several New York newspapers.
The prominent historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, the ad explained, had vanished under mysterious circumstances from his hotel room in the city. All that was left of him was an unpublished manuscript that the hotel’s owner threatened to publish himself if Knickerbocker didn’t return and pay his bill.
The ads caused a sensation. Who was this famous historian and what did his manuscript say? An entire city wanted to know.
When Knickerbocker’s manuscript was finally published, it was an immediate blockbuster hit; so influencing New York’s culture that its inhabitants started referring to themselves as Knickerbockers. A century later, this nickname was even assigned to New York’s professional basketball team.
But New Yorkers were particularly enamored with Washington’s fantastical story of how the city was created. St. Nicholas, you see, came to its Dutch founder in a dream and told him where to build.
“The good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children,” he wrote. And he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead.”
St. Nicholas himself designated where New York City should stand, and it should spread as wide as the clouds of his pipe smoke over the treetops.
New Yorkers loved the story and were fascinated by the Dutch tradition in which St. Nicholas brought toys to children each year. They took up the tradition themselves, and St. Nicholas started bringing presents to New York’s children each year on the day Washington’s novel was published—the day St. Nicholas still comes today, December 6th.
Young Washington Irving was soon revealed to be the author of the “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” and his name became world-famous with the publication of his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” which appeared in a collection of his essays entitled “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman.”
While these two stories were the most popular, the most influential in the book were four essays he wrote about Christmas, in which he described celebrations of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Christmas Dinner in the old tradition. People loved them and incorporated them in their own celebrations. Christmas, which for years hadn’t been a big holiday in America, was on its way to becoming the nation’s biggest holiday.
And several decades later, when another author, Clement C. Moore, adapted Washington’s description of St. Nicholas into his own work, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the beloved saint, who also became known as Santa Claus, started delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
It became one of America’s most beloved Christmas traditions, if not its most beloved tradition, and in a very real way, it all began with Washington Irving’s prank.