How German Refugee Thomas Nast Invented How Santa Claus Looks Back During the Civil War

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Thomas Nast drew this image of Jolly Old Santa Claus in 1881.

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Thomas Nast did not invent the American Christmas, but the German immigrant did develop the iconic image of its central celebratory figure, Santa Claus. Nast’s Civil War era cartoons established the fat jolly elf from the North Pole with a sack filled with presents as the focus of the December 24th dreams of hundreds of millions of children worldwide. Before Nast, Santa looked like this 1821 illustration.1

Nast’s Santa of a century and a half ago, on the other hand, is one that is still recognizable today. Chubby, jolly, and magical, Nast’s Santa is not that different from the Santa we now see all the time.2

While his most enduring art is associated with a child’s vision of Christmas, Nast was a hardbitten editorial cartoonist, who turned out drawings every week for the nation’s newspapers. He supported Lincoln during the Civil War, campaigned against Boss Tweed’s corrupt control of New York City’s government, and protested against the lynching of black men and women in the South. He also reinforced ethnic stereotypes of Irish as subhuman brutes, and invented the symbols of the donkey and the elephant, respectively, for both the Democratic and Republican  parties.3

Thomas Nast was born in 1840 in what is now Germany. At the time, his birthplace of Landau was part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. His father served as a musician in the kingdom’s army. As a little boy there, Thomas was visited by Pelze-Nicol, the German Santa Claus, who brought treats and toys, or punishment for the naughty children. The Pelz-Nicol of his childhood would find his way into American imagery. (Paine p. 6)4

Thomas’s father was warned in 1846 that his liberal beliefs made him a man without a future in Bavaria, so, when the boy was just five years old, the Nast family began its move to America as political refugees. Nast’s mother took charge of the move, as her husband had to travel separately. The ship Thomas was on was caught in a terrible storm as it neared the coast of the United States, and 60 years later, Nast recalled praying in German for survival. When the storm subsided, he got his first look at America at the Verrazano Narrows. (Paine p. 8)5

Nast lived near the corner of William and Frankfort Streets, marked with a red X.

His mother found her family a place to stay on Greenwich Street in Manhattan. Thomas was sent to an English-speaking school. He did not know what to do there and could not make himself understood. One boy pointed to a line and told him to stand on it. Thomas followed instructions, not realizing that a cruel joke was being played on him. The line was for students who were being punished by the principal. At the time, punishment involved being beaten with a stick. When the disciplinarian began to hit him, Thomas could not communicate his innocence. Nast was spared further beatings when his mother moved the family to William Street and Frankfort Street, near where Pace University and the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge is today in Manhattan. (Paine p. 10)6

In his new neighborhood, Nast entered a new school. This one was a German-speaking elementary school. Here, instead of punishment, Nast was praised for his artistic abilities. Many German immigrants chose to send their children to schools where they would be educated in the language of their homeland. This helped the children feel more secure in their new country, and kept them from falling behind in their studies. While Nast was secure there, he was not a diligent student of anything other than drawing. (Paine p. 10 Halloran pp. 2-3)7

Thomas Nast caricatured himself as a fifteen-year-old.

The Nast family was not made whole until 1850, when Thomas’s father finally arrived in New York. Thomas persuaded his father, a musician himself who found work with the Philharmonic, to let him study art. Nast sought out Theodore Kaufmann, a German immigrant fine artist who took him on as a student. By the age of 15, he was working for Frank Leslie’s nationally distributed newspaper.8

Here is his first illustration, done at the age of 15. It depicts the ferry terminal at Christopher Street in Manhattan used by passengers headed across the Hudson River for New Jersey.9

Nast was an unknown 20-year-old illustrator when the Civil War began. While many artists headed for the battlefront, Nast did most of his work in New York. His illustrations commented on the politics of the day, supporting Emancipation of the slaves for example, or depicted the suffering on the home front for women and children separated from their citizen-soldier husbands and fathers. 10

On January 3, 1863 Nast combined politics and sentimentality in his first major works depicting Santa. Published by the most popular “illustrated newspaper” of his day, Harper’s Weekly, Nast had a front page lithograph of Santa Claus visiting Union troops in camp and a two-page spread depicting Christmas for a soldier at the front and his wife and child at home.11

The cover Santa in Camp was published just a few weeks after Union troops suffered a bloody defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where they lost over 12,000 men killed, wounded, and missing, yet the illustration shows well-dressed and resolute soldiers celebrating the season. A patriotic Santa wears a fur suit that incorporates elements of the American flag. The Stars-and-Stripes clad Santa is on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Further politicizing the scene is the puppet Santa is holding. It is the Confederate president Jeff Davis.12

A poignant two-page spread in the same issue shows a scene of loss and loneliness. Entitled Christmas Eve 1862, the lithograph shows a Christmas scene on the homefront on the left. A wife looks out at the night sky praying fervently for the safety of her soldier-husband. Her worry and loneliness must have been shared by hundreds of thousands of other women that year. On the right, her husband is performing picket duty far from his home hearth. Only a crude fire warms him as he looks at pictures of his family. His nostalgia for his wife and two children is written on his face. Below the two main circles, Nast has etched an image of refugees fleeing war beneath the woman. At the right side of the picture are Union naval ships being battered by an icy storm. In the middle is a cemetery with newly dug graves.13

This illustration does not seem like a place where Santa would make an appearance, but in the upper left corner, Santa is about to head down a chimney.14

On the upper right side, Santa is in his sleigh, being drawn by his reindeer past children who are gleefully running after him. 15

Harper’s Weekly and Nast were applauded for the visualization of the Santa figure, and they would issue a major illustration with him nearly every Christmas afterwards. In December of 1863, following Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the scene was one of homecoming. The soldier is home on leave from the army and his wife greets him with a passionate embrace. One child jumps on his fathers leg, and the soldier’s parents are at the door.16

The left side image shows Santa Claus emerging on Christmas Eve from a fireplace after having come down the chimney. On the right, the children are taking down stockings and playing with toys on Christmas morning. Beneath the three main panels are more religious images, but what dominates the scene is not the birth of Jesus, but family, children, toys, and Santa. The modern secularization of Christmas was already under way in Nast’s drawings. Santa was no longer the old Christian Saint Nicholas, he was a jolly elf full of fun and mischief. 17

For Christmas of 1866, with the war ended, Nast removed Santa from current events and created a two-page spread for Harper’s Weekly that filled in the blanks about Santa’s life. Entitled Santa Claus and His Works, the center scene carried the familiar image of the elf filling stockings hung by the fire with care. Other scenes incorporated the German folklore Nast had imbibed as a child and added new elements.18

The Harper’s illustration was later published as a children’s book in color. It is worth looking at its details to see how it influenced the development of the holiday celebration.19

Santa Claus and His Works shows Santa’s workshop. Santa did not yet have an army of elven assistants, he appears to have done all of the work himself. For example, here he is sewing clothes for dolls.20

Nast also showed how Santa knew which children were naughty and which were nice. Santa used a spyglass at his home in the North Pole. By the way, historians think that Nast was the person who popularized the idea that Santa lives at the North Pole. As no one had traveled to the poles in the 1860s, there were no pesky scientists around to challenge Nast’s fanciful depiction of it.21

Nast also may have been the first artist to depict Santa’s list of naughty and nice children.22

In a later illustration of Santa Claus’s mail, Nast showed Santa reading letters from children, with a small pile from the good ones on the right and a massive pile from the naughty children on the left. While the illustration ostensibly warns children to behave well, the two pictures on the wall behind Santa send a different message. The naughty children on the left are obviously having fun, while the good children on the right look repressed and unhappy.23

Over the years, Nast drew scores of images of Santa and other Christmas themes. Children, fun, family, food, and flirtation dominated. The myth and magic of Santa excited children who could see the mundane world that they lived in as a place where the most fantastic things could take place. Reindeer could land on roofs, and Santa could travel the whole globe in a single night and not forget them. Parents were engaged too, as they, once each year, became Santa’s real helpers. 24

While we think of the modern Christmas celebration as an American invention and we associate it most with New England, the Puritans actually banned it as a Papist holiday. It took the immigrant Nast to show Americans how to do Christmas right.25

Portrait of Thomas Nast published in 1867 by Harper’s Weekly.

Acknowledgement:

This article was inspired by a discussion on the Civil War Talk Message Board started by James N. with member JPK Hudson 1863 supplying many additional images. I appreciate their reminding me of some forgotten art.

Sources:

  1. Old Santaclaus With Much Delight, Unknown Artist (1821)
  2. “For he’s a jolly good fellow, so say we all of us” by Thomas Nast
  3. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012)
  4. Thomas Nast: His Period And His Pictures by Albert Bigelow Paine published by New York: The MacMillan Company (1904) p. 6
  5. Thomas Nast: His Period And His Pictures by Albert Bigelow Paine published by New York: The MacMillan Company (1904) p. 8
  6. Thomas Nast: His Period And His Pictures by Albert Bigelow Paine published by New York: The MacMillan Company (1904) p. 10
  7. Thomas Nast: His Period And His Pictures by Albert Bigelow Paine published by New York: The MacMillan Company (1904) p. 10; Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 2-3
  8. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 3-13
  9. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 5, 23.
  10. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 39-59
  11. Santa in Camp by Thomas Nast was published in the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
  12. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings by Thomas Nast published by Dover Press Introduction
  13. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 71-73.
  14. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 71-73.
  15. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012) pp. 71-73.
  16. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings by Thomas Nast published by Dover Press Introduction
  17. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings by Thomas Nast published by Dover Press Introduction
  18. Santa Claus and His Works by Robert Kennedy; Santa Claus and His Works by Thomas Nast (digitalized)
  19. Santa Claus and His Works by Robert Kennedy; Santa Claus and His Works by Thomas Nast (digitalized)
  20. Santa Claus and His Works by Robert Kennedy; Santa Claus and His Works by Thomas Nast (digitalized)
  21. Santa Claus and His Works by Robert Kennedy; Santa Claus and His Works by Thomas Nast (digitalized)
  22. Santa Claus and His Works by Robert Kennedy; Santa Claus and His Works by Thomas Nast (digitalized)
  23. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings by Thomas Nast published by Dover Press
  24. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings by Thomas Nast published by Dover Press
  25. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons by Fiona Deans Halloran  published by The University of North Carolina Press (2012)

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