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December 21, 2016

The Christmas Visions of Thomas Nast: The Man Who "Invented" the Image Popularly Recognized as Santa Claus

At the beginning of the 19th century Santa Claus found himself in a quandry. What should he wear? Perhaps he should emphasize his title of St. Nicholas and appear as a stern bishop wearing robes? Or maybe go the other way and be seen as a clowning elf with a frock coat and pantaloons? It was at this point that Thomas Nast, premire American political cartoonist of the 1800s, stepped in and gave Santa the well-needed makeover that he still carries with him even today...

Thomas Nast, ca. 1870.

Thomas Nast was born in Germany in 1840 where his father was a musician in the Ninth Regiment Bavarian Band. When he was still a child his family immigrated to New York City. His father noticed that young Thomas had a flair for drawing and for a short while he was sent to study at an art school. At the age of 15, when family funds for the school were exhausted, Nast presented himself to Frank Leslie, owner of the journal Leslie's Illustrated, hoping for a job. Leslie, not wanting to be bothered with the boy, gave him a difficult assignment: sketching the crowd at the Christopher Street Ferry. Nast, however, turned in a drawing that was so fine that Leslie hired him on the spot.

In 1859 Nast started drawing for Harper's Weekly, a relationship that would last for more than twenty-five years. He first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War. Nast’s Santa appeared as a kindly figure representing Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ.

When Nast created his image of Santa Claus he was drawing on his native German tradition of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop known for his kindness and generosity. In the German Christian tradition December 6 was (and is) Saint Nicholas day, a festival day honor of Saint Nicholas and a day of gift giving. Nast combined this tradition of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves to draw his Santa in 1862. The claim that Nast “invented’ Santa Claus in 1862 is thus accurate, but the assertion overlooks the centuries-long antecedents to his invention.

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus.

“Christmas Eve” Harper’s Weekly (1863)

“Christmas 1863” Harper’s Weekly (1863)

Harper’s Weekly December 30, 1871.

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Thomas Nast: Santa Claus - Harper’s Weekly December 1884.



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