Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and Santa Claus
Many aspects of the American Christmas celebration were imported from Europe, and Germany in particular. The Dutch may have given him his English name, but Santa Claus owes most of his current image to an award-winning German-American cartoonist.
Thomas Nast was born in Landau in der Pfalz (between Karlsruhe and Kaiserslautern) on Sept. 27, 1840. His father, also named Thomas, was a trombonist in a military band of the 9th Bavarian Regiment. His mother was Appolinia Abriss. When he was only six years old, he and his sister Andie arrived in New York City with their mother. (His father arrived three years later, after completing duty on an American ship.) After art studies in New York, Nast became an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper at the age of 15. His father died suddenly and Thomas became the family breadwinner. By the time he was 19, he was working at Harper’s Weekly and later traveled to Europe on assignment for other publications (and paid a visit to his hometown in Germany). Soon he was a famous political cartoonist.
Today the city of Landau in der Pfalz (in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate) honors its native son with a street named for him and its annual Christmas market, named the Thomas-Nast-Nikolausmarkt.
In September 1861, only six months after his return from Europe, Nast married Sarah Edwards, a young lady of New York’s high society. Sarah brought love, money and inspiration to her husband. She shared her passion for fables and mythology, which Nast used to enrich his cartoons and humor.
Nast is best remembered today for his biting political cartoons aimed at “Boss Tweed” and as the creator of several well-known US icons, including the Republican elephant symbol. Less well known is Nast’s contribution to the image of Santa Claus.
Jolly Old Saint Nick
Many people helped create the Santa Claus we know today. In many ways St. Nick is quite international. After all, he is a man without a country, living at the North Pole (an idea that comes from a poem by George P. Webster in a book of Nast’s Santa illustrations published in 1869), and his name is a corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas. Today Santa is a familiar figure around the world, even in unexpected places like Japan.
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When Nast published a series of drawings of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly each year from 1863 (in the midst of the Civil War) to 1866, he helped create the kinder, more fatherly, plumper Santa we know today. His drawings show influences of the bearded, fur-cloaked, pipe-smoking Pelznickel of Nast’s Palatinate homeland. Later color illustrations by Nast (see below) are even closer to today’s Santa Claus image, showing him as a toy maker. Here are some more Santa history highlights, including contributions by Thomas Nast.
Contributors to the Santa Claus Image and Legend:
Washington Irving | 1812
Irving, under the name “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” publishes a revised edition of his satirical history of New York in which Santa “rides over the tops of trees” in a horse-drawn wagon. He is described as a “jolly Dutchman” who smokes a clay pipe.
Clement Clarke Moore | 1822
Moore publishes his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem is the first mention of a sleigh powered by “eight tiny reindeer” and mentioning their names. It describes Santa as jolly and rotund.
Thomas Nast | 1863
Harper’s Weekly publishes the first in a series of Nast’s Santa illustrations on January 3. One drawing shows Santa distributing gifts to Civil War soldiers from his sleigh.
Thomas Nast | 1866
Harper’s Weekly publishes the fourth and last installment of Nast’s Santa drawings, now in color (with Santa in red).
Thomas Nast | 1890
Nast publishes a book entitled Christmas Drawings for All Mankind with his latest Santa illustrations including Christmas symbols from around the world. Nast drew Santa walking on rooftops and going down chimneys.
Haddon Sundblom | 1931
Sundblom creates a series of Santa Claus ads for Coca-Cola. His Santa image is very close to Nast’s, updating it with a slightly more modern look. The popular magazine and billboard ads help to standardize Santa’s grandfatherly features. But, as we can see by this timeline, the legend that Coca-Cola created the Santa image is not true.
Montgomery Ward’s | 1939
As part of a Christmas ad campaign, Ward’s introduces “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The song of the same name eventually becomes a worldwide hit.
Thomas Nast | 1902
Six months after Teddy Roosevelt sends him to Guayaquil, Ecuador as American ambassador, Thomas Nast dies of Yellow Fever on December 7, one day after St. Nicholas Day (Nikolaustag).
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