Fraternity, Preservation, and Good Humor
At that time, there were (as there still are) several societies named after national patron saints, such as Saint Andrew (Scottish), Saint David (Welsh), Saint George (English), and Saint Patrick (Irish). Washington Irving, the great humorist and chronicler of the Hudson Valley, and author of such immortal tales as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (as well as of many other works), conceived the Saint Nicholas Society as a somewhat humorous counterpart to the celebration of national origins by such organizations. Also, the New England Society in the City of New York had been recently established in 1805 to promote awareness of New England history and traditions, and many New Yorkers felt that they should, in friendly rivalry, assert their own cultural claims. A spirit of fun, suggested by the jolly character of Saint Nick himself, remains characteristic of the Society. Nevertheless, there was a serious component in the founders’ organized attempt to recognize the distinctive history and character of New York, especially at a time when the city was becoming a major national and international center of commerce, finance, and arts and letters.
The original members of the Society were drawn from the same kinds of people as comprise today’s membership: writers, lawyers, merchants, bankers, and other professionals, active in the public life of the City. Membership was by invitation to persons whose family had lived in New York prior to 1785, just two years past the year of Irving’s birth. (Though Irving was born in Manhattan, his parents were British-born). From the beginning, members of the Society have come from many nationalities and ethnic groups, reflecting a diversity appropriate to the cosmopolitan city that New Amsterdam had been, and that New York was – and still is.
The common denominators of membership have always been enjoyment of cheerful social events, and interest in the interchange of ideas and points of view, in an entirely non-political, agreeable environment. Active members range in age from eighteen to one hundred-plus, all meeting together as equals.
The principal activities of the Saint Nicholas Society consist of several annual meetings, in October, February, and May. There is a dinner on, or near, the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6), and an annual ball at Easter called the Paas Ball (from Paas, the Dutch word for Easter). At the ball, members’ relatives or friends may make their debut. These events are typically held at a private club or hotel.
Other activities consist of outings to sites of historic interest, such as Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” in Westchester County. Over the years, the Society has also issued a number of publications that include biographical sketches of early New Yorkers, and historical analyses of the Dutch and British colonial periods. In 1993, the Society published The Saint Nicholas Society: A 150 Year Record, containing essays about the Society, and a list of members from 1835 to date of publication.
From the founding of the Society through the 1950s, Society events were all-male. Today, guests at most meetings include both men and women. Often, there are remarks by a guest speaker on a topic of current or historical interest. Annual meetings are dedicated to presenting the Society’s Medal of Merit award and the Washington Irving Award for Literary Achievement. A recent Paas Festival was a benefit dinner dance that raised money for the preservation of the historic building of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. Such events help the Society to fulfill its mission to preserve the historical heritage of New York.