Somewhere among the jumble of memorabilia I have preserved over the years is a handwritten letter with my name and childhood address on it. It is postmarked “The North Pole”, and is signed, Santa Claus in bright red ink. It continues to raise some interesting insights into one of our most enduring seasonal traditions.
The name Thomas Nast is seldom heard these days, and where it is, I doubt it is associated with Christmas. But the fact is this immigrant American who arrived here from his native Germany at the age of six, a century-and-three-quarters ago, has touched our national Christmas tradition far more than the casual historian might suppose.
By the time he was 13, Nast had already begun a career as a newspaper illustrator. He was destined to become one of the most influential cartoonists of his day, his biting satires a regular feature of Harper’s Weekly. His work directly affected the outcome of one of New York’s most famous political campaigns, and it was Nast who invented the Republican Elephant and the Democrat Donkey.
What is less known is that he also invented America’s Santa Claus. The idea of Father Christmas, or St. Nicholas, came to our shores with the first Dutch settlers, who pictured this mythical character as a tall bishop of serious demeanor, clad in black clerical robes, and carrying a birch wood staff.
Thomas Nast set about changing this image with a cover design he did for an issue of Harper’s Weekly in December,1863. He was burned out on serious subject matter, and tired of reporting on the grim war news coming from the battlefields of the Civil War. In this drawing he depicts a fanciful Santa Claus, visiting a Union Army outpost, clad in the stars and stripes, and distributing toys to the soldiers. He entertains the crowd with a jumping jack dangling from a hangman's noose, its chest bearing the name "Jeff" for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the background Nast pictured soldiers playing games, trying to capture an escaped pig and trying to climb a greased pole.
In the years that followed, Thomas Nast refined his idea of what Santa should really be like, deciding that the country needed someone who was brightly dressed, full of good cheer, and anxious that children should strive to be “nice”. Nast and his artist’s pens turned Santa into a toy-maker headquartered at the North Pole, and in an illustrated children's book he published in 1866, he added a reindeer-drawn sled filled with toys. Over a period of twenty-three years, the cartoonist who loved Santa Claus left us a legacy that has become a heart-warming part of every Christmas.. . a “right merry old elf” who refuses to be taken too seriously.