The spirit of Christmas is universal, but the embodiment of the perennially popular Yuletide figure Santa Claus has a history that began in the unlikeliest of places: 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, 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, Babbo Natale and Pere Noel.
Nast drew Santa Claus — whose name originated in Holland — as a plump, jovial man who smoked a long-stemmed pipe and wore buckled clogs. He kept a detailed book of “good boys and girls” and spent many hours patiently answering stacks of pre-Christmas “wish” mail.
Using his own family as unwitting 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, who were 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.
In developing the image of his Santa, Nast acknowledged the influence of two great 19th-century American writers: 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 portly Dutch burgomaster who made his benevolent rounds on a fine, white flying horse.
This planted the seed in Nast’s mind to reinvent the legendary Christmas figure Irving had described, steering the character 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 the characters Uncle Sam and John Bull.
Nast was so admired for his uncompromising integrity that his 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 sealed his fate.
Nast’s specialty depiction of Santa in a military uniform drew respect and praise from President Lincoln for the positive influence the image 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 employed by Nast in fleshing out his most famous cartoon subject of all. In Moore’s tale, the white horse originally described by Washington Irving as St. Nicholas’ preferred method of transport had been replaced by “a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.” And St. Nicholas, himself, was characterized as an amiable, fur-swaddled figure toting a bounteous cargo of toys on his back. His “little round belly…shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly,” Moore wrote.
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 accompanying Moore’s poem still depicted the traditional 6th-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 toward children of any particular nationality. The sole industry at the North Pole would be, of course, toy-making, and the workers would be a tireless and devoted crew of elves who didn’t know the meaning of the words “overtime” or “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 so obviously child-oriented, American toy and game manufacturers began 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 plastic 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 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, Nast died, at age 60.
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 original, much-loved interpretation of “the right jolly old elf.”
© Catherine Saunders-Watson, 2008
The author gratefully acknowledges historical information obtained from an introductory narrative by Thomas Nast St. Hill in the book Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings, Dover Publications, New York, copyright 1978.