Published: December 19, 2000
The spirit of Christmas is universal, but the embodiment of that perennially popular Yuletide figure, Santa Claus, has a history that began, of all places, in New York.
For centuries, European artists had depicted St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas, as a dour, Medieval bishop with a long, gray beard. It was not until 1863 that Thomas Nast, the German-born father of American political cartooning, introduced a far more endearing version of the character, one whose robust good cheer and imaginative North Pole-based mythology was both approachable and believable to children. Over the course of time, Nast would dramatically change all traditional conceptions of the Christmas benefactor, whose other “aliases” included Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and, later, Santa Claus.
Nast drew Santa Claus, whose name originated in Holland, as a plump, jovial man who smoked a longstemmed pipe and wore buckled clogs. He kept a detailed book of “good boys and girls” and spent many hours answering stacks of pre-Christmas “wish” mail.
Using his own family as unsuspecting models, the artist was inspired to create enchanting scenes of children sleeping in armchairs as Santa made his stealthy entry via the chimney to deliver gifts. Sometimes the red-suited spirit’s dramatic middle-of-the-night appearance would be witnessed by a throng of family pets, only too pleased to keep Santa’s methods a secret. Other illustrations depicted children gleefully arranging gifts and treats for Santa at the fireplace hearth.
Nast acknowledged the influence of two great Nineteenth Century American writers in the development of his Santa: Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore.
Irving, famous for his tales The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, had written an article in 1809 called History of New York, which dealt with Dutch-American traditions. It included a description of St. Nicholas as a tubby Dutch burgomaster who made his benevolent rounds on a fine white horse.
This planted the seed in Nast’s mind to adapt the legendary Christmas character described by Irving, along more humorous, secular lines. With his formidable credentials as a first-rate artist and political satirist, Nast was eminently capable of undertaking the task. Few of his contemporaries would have dared tamper with anything quite so fragile as the faith of young children, but Nast was accustomed to tackling sacred institutions. He was already held in high public esteem for having invented both the Republican Party’s elephant and Democratic Party’s donkey, not to mention Uncle Sam and Great Britain’s John Bull.
So admired was Nast for his uncompromising integrity that the cartoonist’s influence could decide an election or bring a criminal to justice. His artistic cut and thrust on the infamous William “Boss” Tweed landed the bribe-taking politician behind bars, and Tweed, himself, was first to declare it was “them damn pictures” that had put him there.
Nast’s specialty stars and stripes depiction of “Santa in uniform” drew respect and praise from President Lincoln for the positive influence the advertising character had had on Army enlistments, and even General Grant attributed his subsequent presidential victory to “the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”
It was in 1823 that Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas was first published. Richly descriptive, it provided the final bits of fantasy necessary for Nast to complete his most famous cartoon subject of all: Santa Claus.
In Moore’s tale, the white horse originally attributed to Washington Irving as St. Nicholas’s preferred method of transport was replaced by “a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.” And St. Nicholas himself was described as an amiable, fur-swaddled figure toting a cornucopia-like booty of toys on his back. His “little round belly…shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”
Moore’s details of the Christmas Eve ritual were marvelously whimsical and left the reader with the distinct impression that St. Nick was someone who might wear a lampshade on his head after one cup too many of electric holiday punch. But paradoxically, the illustrations that accompanied Moore’s poem still depicted the traditional Sixth Century European bishop figure, a benevolent but rather humorless fellow.
Nast set his sights on reinventing not just the central character, whom he renamed “Santa Claus,” but also Santa’s environment and supporting cast. Santa, Nast decided, should live at the North Pole, a geographically neutral location that showed no favoritism amongst the children of the northern hemisphere. The sole industry at the North Pole would be, of course, toymaking, and the workers would be a tireless and devoted crew of elves who didn’t know the meaning of the word “strike.”
Nast painstakingly hand-engraved Moore’s poem onto woodblock, using his own revolutionary illustrations as accompaniment. The drawings were an instant sensation, going on to appear in many issues of Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886. No one seemed to mind the artistic license Nast had taken, and in 1890, with chromolithography approaching its peak, Harper & Brothers published a now-classic collection called Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.
Seeing the potential in a Christmas theme that was overtly child-oriented, American toy and game manufacturers wasted no time incorporating the “new look” Santa into their production lines, resulting in a colorful spectrum of turn of the century Christmas juvenilia whose beauty stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced playthings of today.
As for Thomas Nast, his career and life ended in unexpected tragedy. In 1902, heavily in debt and desperate for funds, he reluctantly accepted an admiring President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer of a diplomatic post in Ecuador. There, amidst the squalor of open sewers and nonexistent sanitation, Nast contracted yellow fever. Shortly after sending money home to America to settle his debts, the brilliant artist died at the age of sixty.
Of all that he left behind – and the legacy is immense – it is said that Thomas Nast loved his Christmas Drawings best. Certainly, they have achieved immortality, as even today there has been little change from his much-loved original interpretation of “the right jolly old elf.”
The author gratefully acknowledges historical information taken from an introductory narrative by Thomas Nast St. Hill (grandson of Thomas Nast) in the book Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings, Dover Publications, New York, copyright 1978, which also provided the images shown here.
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