Santa Just Wasn't Himself Until He Met Thomas Nast
November 26, 2011
The Santa Claus we know today—the chubby, jolly man who lives at the North Pole—didn't exist until editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast began drawing him around the time of the American Civil War.
During the darkest days of the Civil War, Nast was given the assignment of illustrating the cover of the Christmas edition of Harper's Weekly in 1862. Instead of creating a happy, domestic holiday scene with a gifts and children, Nast chose to depict Santa as a melancholy figure dressed in a modified stars and stripes costume giving gifts to bedraggled Union troops. To illustrate the dire mood of the nation that Christmas season, inside the magazine, Nast depicted a wife praying on Christmas Eve at her children's bedroom window for her soldier husband away at war.
Drawing on the traditions and folktales of his native Germany, Nast drew St. Nicholas as rotund and slightly elfish in comparison to the stately ancient bishop that's been his traditional image of the season. Nast would go on later to fully create the iconic American Santa Claus. In the years after that first Harper's Weekly cover, Nast's Santas became more round and jolly.
If you'd like to learn more about Santa and his Civil War roots, join re-enactor Jim Two Crows Wallens as he presents Civil War Santa Tuesday, Dec. 13 at 6:30 p.m. here at the Kearney Branch. Dressed as Nast's original Santa, Wallens will share letters and diaries from actual soldiers, their wives, children, and parents to tell the tales of Christmas during one of the darkest times in our nation's history.