Thomas Nast Portfolio


"Santa Claus in Camp," Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863,
cover, p.8-9.

      Thomas Nast “invented” the image popularly recognized
as Santa Claus. Nast 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. His use
of Santa Claus was melancholy, sad for the faltering Union
war effort in which Nast so fervently believed, and sad for
the separation of soldiers and families. 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 honoring 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.Santa Claus
thrived thereafter in American culture both Christian and
secular. During the Civil War, Christmas was a traditional
festival celebration in the United States, although not yet a
holiday. In Nast’s time Christmas was not a day when
offices or factories closed; but the development of
Christmas as a holiday and the use of Santa Claus as a
secular symbol of gift giving removed from its Christian
antecedents occurred during Nast’s lifetime. The modern
American celebration of Christmas, with its commercialized
gift exchanges, developed in cities, led by New York, after
1880. Nast’s images of Santa Claus were so popular that
they were collected and reprinted in a book published in 1890.


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