Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Thomas Nast: The Man who Invented Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is a figure that has embedded itself in the American conscience.  We all know that he is not American but originally German, (his name was originally "Sinterklass" or something along those lines), but artists-- especially in this country-- have turned him into an iconic figure whose face can never be forgotten.  I find myself wondering if the only other man, real or imagined, that has ever been depicted so much and often by artists is Jesus Christ himself.  Indeed, Santa has taken on a reputation of almost religious proportions.  At this auspicious time of year his likeness is paid homage to in every house and store in America, and his face has even been used to sell products that once had very little to do with Christmas, like Coca-Cola. (Thank Norman Rockwell for that...)

...But who was the first American artist to depict this legendary character?  The figure of Santa Claus is more deeply tied to the Civil War than most people realize.

Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, b. 1840, d. 1902 (see his picture HERE ) was a political cartoonist during the 1860's who helped bring the issues of this great American struggle home to the common citizen.  His engravings and sketches captured the imagination of a country, and were to be found in every issue of this great Journal of Civilization.  Thomas Nast is the man whom historical experts almost unanimously agree created Santa Claus as we know him today. 

This image, on the front cover of Harper's Weekly from Saturday, January 3rd 1863, is the earliest glimpse of what this legendary figure may look like.  And, being the political cartoonist and Northerner that he is, Nast has drawn him as a poster boy for the Union.  (see below)

"Santa Claus in Camp"
(click image to follow to source)

Santa is seen here perched on a wagon, doling out gifts to great-coated Union soldiers and at least one officer.  The man at left has opened up his box and is holding a pair of brand new socks (which is one thing that soldiers desperately needed.) A boy at Santa's feet is playing with what appears to be a jack-in-the-box as his friend looks at it with some interest.  

But the most interesting feature of the entire image is the figure of Santa Claus himself.  Get out your spectacles or a magnifying glass and take a closer look at him!   He is wearing striped pants and stars on his dark coat and is unmistakeably Union.  But what's this?? He's holding up a puppet on a string! One of those silly toys that waves its arms and legs and dances when you pull on the string.  Look a little closer at the toy.  It almost appears to be a man hanging by the neck and dancing at the end of his rope!  Many historians believe this was Thomas Nast taking a little stab at Jefferson Davis.  So the artist has injected quite a lot of political overtones into this picture.  Because Santa is obviously allied with the North, and wants Davis to hang!  During the Civil War, this jolly figure apparently played a dual role, as the figurehead of a national holiday and as a propaganda tool for the Union.   Interesting...

This was only his first attempt to depict Santa Claus.  Over the following months and years, and indeed the rest of his career as an artist,  Thomas Nast became almost obsessed with this figure, and his rendering of him grew into the Santa as we know him today.

Observe this later illustration plate for Harper's Weekly that any reader would most certainly recognize:  


Santa appears to have gained some girth and has an armful of toys. He is smoking a long pipe and has a fur hat with holly leaves in it. Notice his furry hat and coat, the beard, the cheerful pudgy face and the wide leather belt.  Almost how we think of him now!

Let's examine some more of Nast's depictions of him and see how they changed over the years...(click to enlarge any of them)

1869


1872


1874

1879

1881

 1884
 Yes, Santa is talking on a telephone.


Please visit www.stnicholascenter.org to learn more fun facts about Santa!


 


1 comment:

  1. I always loved Nast etchings. They are so detailed.

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