Before Santa Claus
In spite of its contemporary popularity, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century (see also Christmas in Colonial America). A few ethnic groups, however, clung to the Christmas customs inherited from their European ancestors. Before Santa Claus became a familiar gift bringer to most Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch received Christmas gifts from the Christ Child, whom they called Christkindel, Christ-kind-lein, or Christkindchen.
The Pennsylvania Dutch were Swiss and German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These German-speaking immigrants called themselves Deut-sche, which means “German.” Eventually, Americans turned “Deut-sche” into “Dutch.” Although the “Plain Dutch” (the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren) did not celebrate Christmas, the “Gay Dutch” (Lutherans and Reformed) did.
The Gay Dutch brought their German Christmas folklore with them to the United States. This folklore included two Christmas gift bring-ers, the Christ Child and Belsnickel. These two figures were distributing gifts to people of German descent in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, decades before Moore wrote his famous Christmas poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and a century before Thomas Nast’s illustrations popularized Santa Claus. Belsnickel was also known in German communities in Michigan, Iowa, and New York.