Know Thy History: Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus
Over here in the real world, I’ve been reasonably busy with Christmas-related activities. Travel arrangements, presents, decorations, the whole shebang. In the month of December, I am less “El Santo” and more “El Santa.”
SPEAKING OF WHICH…
A Nigerian friend of mine made an interesting comment recently that, over in his home country, Santa (or rather, “Father Christmas” owing to their tradition’s British origins) has always been portrayed as a Black man. So he was actually pretty surprised when he emigrated to America, and all the Santas here were white. As an added bit of shock, apparently all the locals assumed that the real Santa was always white. But St. Nicolas, the man behind the legend, was actually a bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey. So, really, wouldn’t an accurate Santa be more olive-skinned?
So what established the American template for Santa Claus? The one that all mall Santas, Salvation Army reps, Santa Run athletes, and Santa-themed movies must abide by? Could it be … The Father of the American Cartoon?
The man credited with crafting the uniquely American version of Santa is none other than comic superstar Thomas Nast. Anyone whose ever opened an illustrated American history book is familiar with Nast’s contributions. The man spoofed the Democratic Party as a bunch of braying jackasses and the Republican Party as a dumb, lumbering elephant … and in a weird twist of fate both parties embraced his mockery whole-heartedly and turned his cartoons into party symbols. Along with superstar British illustrator John Tenniel (Alice In Wonderland), he gave Uncle Same has trademark goatee. He published several memorable images criticizing the Tammany Hall political machine, which also helped codify the style of the editorial cartoon.
And yes, he popularized the notion that Santa was not the rail thin Father Christmas of British lore, but rather a jolly fat man in a lovely red long johns.
Now, to be fair, Nast didn’t invent the idea of a jolly St. Nick had a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. That would be Clement Moore’s infamous 1823 poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” According to HistoryBuff.com, the illiterate Thomas Nast had his wife read the poem to him, and from there came his primary inspiration. Additionally, The Ohio State University claims that Nast, a German immigrant, integrated a lot of elements from traditions in his home country… namely, all stuff that has to do with elves. The German Way website adds that “his drawings show influences of the bearded, fur-cloaked, pipe-smoking Pelznickel of Nast’s Palatinate homeland.” Hmm… I guess I can see the resemblance.
Other sources claim that Nast was the guy who originated the legend of how Santa came from the North Pole. Hmmm… is it possible that the North Pole was a veiled reference to the Union Army? Nast was a proud supporter of the North. When the Civil War broke out, Nast wanted to enlist, but his friends convinced him he could do more good by illustrating battlefield scenes for the newspaper. And so Nast’s illustrating career at Harper’s Weekly began. He drew battles, he drew soldiers … and he drew Santa himself, sometimes supporting the war effort through visits to the Union troops.
Anyway, beyond just establishing the image of Santa Claus for generations to come, Nast did a lot of legwork to establish the Santa mythos. Nast revealed that Santa liked to read letters from kids and that he also kept a naughty-and-nice list. In the book Santa Claus and His Works, Nast provided the illustrations that firmly established that Santa had a workshop, where toys were built in the days leading up to Christmas, which HistoryBuff.com credits as Nast’s ideas.
All in all, Nast produced 76 Christmas themed engravings that were signed and published. The way Americans saw Santa would never be the same again.
Nowadays, a lot of comic book writers for superhero books like to garnish their job description with pretentious terms like “modern mythmakers.” Isn’t kinda fantastic to run into a cartoonist — the Father of the American Cartoon, no less — who actually is?