What do Kingston, N.Y., Abercrombie & Fitch, early Hudson River steamboats and Johnny Depp all have in common?
Santa Claus, natch. Well, specifically, they’re threaded to the Colonial Dutch version of the burly, bearded man in the big red suit: Sinterklaas.
The story begins more than 300 years ago when Dutch settlers arrived in the Mid-Hudson Valley to communities such as Wiltwyck (now Kingston, which is also the first capital of New York), Hurley and Rhinebeck. They brought with them from the Netherlands a celebration and parade where children play Kings and Queens, and are honored by the community as the “bringers of the light” during the prolonged darkness of early winter.
A villager would dress up as Sinterklaas, which is closely based on Saint Nicholas — the patron saint of children and sailors — and would visit houses with sidekick Grumpus (also known as Black Pete). Good children would be given treats. Grumpus threatened to take the not-so-good ones to Spain if they didn’t change their ways. Sinterklaas’ outfit included a large, velvet green or red robe, and a bishop’s hat and staff. His beard was long and white, and during the parade, he rode a white steed, according to historical accounts. Today, the tradition is still widely celebrated by the Dutch in the Netherlands.
During the American colonial period, the tradition served to bring the community together during the onset of the harshest time of the year. As settlements in the Hudson Valley grew, non-Dutch colonists adopted the tradition. Eventually, Sinterklaas became Sinter Klaus, and later Santa Claus as the focus also switched toward more clearly celebrating the birth of Christ. The celebration also drew in other traditions such as decorating homes with a “Tannanbaum” or Christmas tree — a German addition to the holiday.
One early advocate for helping spread the spirit of Christmas via Santa Claus in America was Ezra Fitch of Kingston. Not Ezra Hasbrouck Fitch, the famed cofounder of Abercrombie & Fitch & Co. Inc., but his namesake grandfather.
In Alf Evers’ 2005 book, “Kingston: City on the Hudson,” the author noted that since the publication of “The Night Before Christmas” by an anonymous author in a Hudson Valley newspaper in 1823, the holiday was “on its way to acceptance in American life.” By 1840, the first Christmas cards were being sent (after first appearing in London), and Ezra Fitch had a vision for further popularizing the holiday so he commissioned a steam boat, launching the “Santa Claus” in 1845.
Evers notes that the 185-foot vessel was festooned with Christmas decorations and murals (including one image of Santa poised atop a chimney), and would travel up and the down the Hudson from Kingston and New York City spreading the “spirit of Christmas” for most of the year save when the river would freeze over in the winter months. Although steam boat day trips were popular on the Hudson as the trips resonated with passengers’ desire for romantic jaunts that helped ease the burdens of city life, the Santa Claus eventually failed as a business venture. Historians — including Evers — speculated that year-round Christmas celebrations were too fatiguing for the public. In 1854, Ezra Fitch retired and would die in 1870.
But the holiday celebrations continued to grow as America itself expanded. Christmas cards, trees and decorations were augmented by parades and feasts as well as gift giving. The holiday continued to add traditions from various winter solstice practices that included the Scandinavian yule celebration and Christmas caroling, which is traced to Eastern European traditions, according to various historical accounts. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, an influx of immigrants to New York City and the Hudson Valley from Ireland, Germany and other parts of Europe also influenced the holiday with additional traditions and rituals.
It was during this time that Ezra Hasbrouck Fitch grew up. Born in 1865 just north of Kingston in the hamlet of Coxsackie at the estate of his grandfather, Fitch would later become a successful businessman and attorney working for the family’s freight company.
Later, he was a real estate developer in Kingston, according to the “People’s History of Kingston, Rondout and Vicinity,” published in 1943. But Fitch’s real passion was the outdoors, where he spent time hiking and climbing in the Adirondacks and fishing in the numerous streams of the nearby Catskill Mountains, which is considered the birthplace of fly fishing in the U.S.
So it is no wonder that when David Abercrombie opened his outdoor excursions store, Abercrombie Co., in New York City in 1892, Fitch would be one of its best customers. According to the company’s history, Fitch was so loyal that he bought into the company in 1900 and later expanded his ownership while also adding his named to the moniker. By 1907, Fitch completely bought out Abercrombie, but kept the brand name intact.
Fitch was also an innovator, like his grandfather, but arguably more successful. In 1909, Abercrombie & Fitch was the first company to issue a mail order catalogue, which proved popular around the holidays. And Fitch is credited for not only bringing the game of mahjong to the U.S. from China, but popularizing it as well. Soon after retiring, tFitch would suddenly pass away in 1930 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He died on his yacht, the “Content.” The boat then had various owners, including actor Johnny Depp, who bought it in 2007, but sold it this past year.
Today, Kingston and Rhinebeck continue to hold a Sinterklaas celebration. But instead of a white steed, the jolly gift-giver rides a 1949-circa tugboat from the docks of Kingston — from where the steam boat Santa Claus once launched — across the Hudson River to Rhinebeck.
A careful observer might spy a few Abercrombie & Fitch logoed hoodies amid the crowd cheering for Sinterklass — and perhaps see the fashion brand in a new light.