My Brewster tree goes back to the earliest New Netherlands settlers of the Hudson River Valley. One branch comes down from Pieter Janse Loockermans, an immigrant from Turnhout, a city in the Flemish section of Belgium. Pieter came to New Netherlands in about 1640 and settled in Beverwyck in present-day Albany, NY. His sister Annetje Loockermans also came to the new world, and she married well in 1642 to Oloff Van Cortlandt, a successful businessman who became the mayor of New Amsterdam (New York City). One of Annetje’s daughters was Maria Van Cortlandt, who married Jeremias van Rensselaer and lived in the Rennsselaerwyck section of Albany.
The first reference to Santa Claus in the United States is held at the New York State archives. It is a 1675 receipt from “Walter the Baker” of Albany for Maria van Rensselaer’s bakery order that included “koeken” (cookies) and “suntterclaes goet”, which translates to “Sinterklass goodies”. Sinterklass is the Dutch name for St Nicholas, a white-bearded and red-robed Catholic saint who evolved into our modern day idea of Santa Claus.
Mention of any sort of Christmas celebration was unusual at this period in colonial America. In 1659, the puritans of New England formally banned Christmas observances like feasting or time off from work, punishable by a fine of 5 shillings. They felt that Christmas was a pagan tradition marred “by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling” (Cotton Mather, 1712). This negative view of the holiday continued to the Revolutionary War period, when New Englanders associated Christmas celebrations with England and the monarchy. Even up to 1850 in New England, schools and markets were not closed on Christmas day. During the 1850s and 1860s, major changes such as the civil war and the increased industrialization of the US led to a growing focus on the ideal of peace and warm memories of traditional family life. This trend led to the popularity of Christmas trees, cards, gift-giving, and of course, Santa Claus.
- New Netherlands Institute: Oloff Van Courtlandt (1600-1684) Industrial/Commercial Leader by C. Carl Pegels
- New York State Library, Van Rensselaer Manor Papers, Baker’s account from Wouter de backer (= Wouter Albertsz) March 1675 for scan of bakery receipt
- The Week, When Americans Banned Christmas, 2011
History Today, Christmas in 19th Century America, Volume 45 Issue 12 December 1995