Thursday, April 1, 2010

New York, Santa Claus and rusty old balls.

When the calendar swings back around to December we’ll talk about how New York had an outsized influence on the modern representation of Santa Claus. From his little Dutch clay pipe to moving his wanderings to Christmas Eve. But recently I came across a curious relic on the streets of New York that reminded me of Ole St. Nick the patron Saint of New York.

The stretch of Eighth Avenue from 34th street up to Times Square is doing its best to retain the seedy feel of the Times Square of old. It’s lined with the occasional sex shop and decidedly non-sexy discount shops. But standing there on the east side of Eighth just off 34th there’s a relic of old New York and Good Ole St. Nick that’s just managing to hang on.

It sits there calling out: S & G Gross Co.,Inc. Est. 1901. LOANS.

Wedged between a fast food shop and a Porn shop you’ll find this
classic pawn shop. How do I know it’s a pawn shop why the three rusty old balls dangling down over the shopfront.

And what the hell does this have to do with a Saint?

Well, St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop stationed in Myrna, Turkey who performed assorted good deeds. Ole Nick is supposed to have died in 321 AD.

Among other things St. Nick is the patron saint of brides, money lenders and sailors. It was only natural for Dutch sailors to bring Nick to New York. But brides and moneylenders? As the story goes Nick learns that three poor sisters lack a dowry to get married and he tosses three bags of gold into their open window. Thus he became the patron saint of brides. His coin tossing also made him the patron saint of moneylenders. And it’s said the 3 gold balls in front of a pawnshop originally represented St. Nick’s 3 bags of gold.

The Medici’s would flatten them out to represent 3 gold coins. But tradition has a way of sneaking back in the window and coins were once again inflated into balls. And they’ve remained an international symbol of a Pawnbroker ever since.

I’m sure each Christmas when good ole Kris Kringle comes to play Santa at Macy’s Miracle Mall on 34th street he smiles a bit when he sees his three bags of gold hanging on a shop one avenue over.

And that’s how a nice Jewish boy from New York, Sid Gross, wound up with a Catholic Saint’s calling card hanging from his shop. A miracle on 8th Avenue.

Curious but true.


  1. As usual, completely fascinating. Thank you, Dan.

  2. Awesome Dan! I've never seen that. Can't wait to walk by again.