These days, Santa sightings typically take place in abandoned Midwestern malls, agoraphobia-inducing holiday markets, hotel lobbies, and other consumerist nightmares. But in 1863, right in the thick of the Civil War months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the best chances of catching a Santa sighting would have been behind Union lines — or so posited abolitionist cartoonist Thomas Nast in his first portrayal of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1863.
Nast is well-known for his depictions of “Boss Tweed” and the corrupt machinations of Tammany Hall, his solidification of Uncle Sam as the go-to symbol of the US government, and his popularization of the donkey and the elephant as visual stand-ins for the Democratic and Republican parties. Less well-known is that he also pioneered through drawings our image of Santa Claus as the stout, jolly, round-bellied, rosy-cheeked, cherry-nosed benevolent patriarch — as described in Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which Nast at one point illustrated — who we know and love today. And lest we think that Nast put aside his political convictions at Christmastime for the sake of vacuous chimeras like unity and peace, Nast, extraordinarily, forged his vision for Santa in cartoons that unflinchingly showed Santa siding and conspiring with Union soldiers. His purpose was to raise morale for the Union.
Nast had begun cartooning for Harper’s in 1859, and in 1862 was named the magazine’s war correspondent. A German immigrant who resettled in New York during his youth, Nast quickly developed a reputation as a political “radical” with a fluent and identifiable visual lexicon who vehemently satirized the Ku Klux Klan, slavery, Communism, anarchism, and more. President Abraham Lincoln once called him the Union’s best recruiting sergeant, and president Ulysses Grant once said that Nast had done more than anyone to keep the Union together and end the Civil War.
Nast’s 1862 cartoon “Santa Claus in Camp” was his first image of Santa, and it appeared in Harper’s Weekly’s Christmas edition. Santa, perched on his sleigh and outfitted in a fur coat with American stars emblazoned on it, leans forward and dangles a jumping jack before a semicircle of intent and impassioned listeners. The jumping jack’s chest reads “Jeff” — i.e. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy — a harbinger of the ill-fated future of his political ambitions. His sleigh is filled with crates of gifts, as well as Harper’s papers (gift subscriptions to favored magazines were as fashionable then as they are now, apparently!). Tents and fires raising plumes of smoke mark the landscape in the background, and a large wreath decorated with a star welcomes Santa Claus to the camp.
Before Nast put pen to paper, Santa was more commonly represented as a waifish, disciplinarian figure clad in a bishop’s vestments. Nast’s rendition reimagined Santa as cheerful and giving. His new mode of illustrating Santa owed to his hybridization of traditional European depictions of Saint Nicholas and Germanic folk images of elves. Many of the fantastical elements of Christmas that have since become ubiquitous in cards, children’s books, and Christmases in parks were Nast’s doing. He propagated representations of reindeer-drawn sleighs, icicle-ornamented awnings, Christmas villages, and stockings on mantles. He was also responsible for establishing Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. During his lifetime, the North Pole was a place of mystery and danger; several explorers embarked on expeditions to the Arctic, and it wouldn’t be until after Nast’s death that Robert Peary could claim the distinction of being the first to reach the geographic North Pole. Placing Santa’s headquarters there was therefore an appropriately mystical and secular choice.
In 1889, after leaving Harper’s and having made a series of poor financial investments left him in a tough spot, his former colleagues offered to compile his Christmas drawings in a book. That book was Christmas Drawings for the Human Race — a publication that did much to keep Nast afloat. It included his iconic holiday pictures that had appeared in the magazine over a period of three decades.