In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.

I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.

I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.

There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?

I can tell you that later I learned:

On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)

But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.

Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 11 May 1867

Thomas Nast
Harper’s Weekly, 11 May 1867

Thomas Nast began illustrating when America grew hungry for such talents. The horrors of the Civil War created an industry for visual media that did not abate in the Gilded Age that followed. Five years into his post working for Harper’s Weekly, the periodical introduced their young artist thus:

Thomas Nast, whose portrait, engraved by his friend, W. L. Thomas of London, appears in this issue, and who is most agreeably known to the readers of Harper’s Weekly, is the son of a musician in the Bavarian army, and was born in Landau, Bavaria, in the year 1840. When he was six years old his parents came to the United States, bringing their boy with them. They were very poor, but their industry presently made them comfortable. The boy showed from the beginning his fondness for drawing; and although his parents were very sure that it was folly to devote himself to any thing but a mechanical trade, he persevered in his artistic studies. Upon leaving school he drew with Kaufmann for six months, and had no further instruction from a master.

Summarizing Nast’s efforts, Harper’s had this to say:

But of all Nast’s works his pictures for this paper are undoubtedly the most characteristic and important. They are of an allegorico-political character, at once poems and speeches. They argue the case to the eye, and conclusively. A few lines does the work of many words, and with a force of eloquence which no words can rival. During the great Presidential campaign of 1864 these pictures were powers. “The Chicago Platform” was irresistible. The dishonor and essential treachery of the Democratic Convention, that wretched tender to the Rebel Congress, were exposed with unsparing and overwhelming skill. The baseness, the cowardice, the insincerity, and the inhumanity of the Chicago plotters were revealed to every man and woman in the land. This drawing and “Compromise with the South” were prodigious batteries. Their influence upon the glorious result of the campaign was undeniable.

And in conclusion:

Judging from wood-cuts in Harper’s Weekly of compositions relating to the various stages of the war, Nast is an artist of uncommon abilities. He has composed designs, or rather given hints of his ability to do so, of allegorical, symbolical, or illustrative character far more worthy to be transferred in paint to the wall spaces of our public buildings than any thing that has as yet been placed upon them. Although hastily got up for a temporary purpose, they evince originality of conception, freedom of manner, lofty appreciation of national ideas and action, and a large artistic instinct. (Harper’s Weekly, 11 May 1867, pp. 293-294)

Nast’s artistic instincts carried an incredible weight in the nineteenth century, and still bear upon us today. We identify Republicans with elephants and Democrats with donkeys, both products of Nast’s instinct. His cross-hatched caricature transfigured outrage into sarcasm. Nast’s pictures caused more public outcry to social scandal and political corruption than the articles surrounding them for the same reason I took notice in my copy of Huckleberry Finn: visual art is immediate. New York political “Boss” William Tweed reportedly said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” When finally convicted of fraud, Tweed’s attempt to flee prosecution was prevented by officials in Spain, who identified the fugitive using one of Nast’s cartoons.

In the month of December, for better or worse, the work of Thomas Nast instructs our popular conception of Christmas, and especially Santa Claus. From his youth in Bavaria, he could visualize the subject of Clement C. Moore’s “Visit from St. Nicholas,” what we commonly call…


‘Twas the night before Christmas…

Thomas Nast revisited the subject countless times, and many of them can be seen online, but being of a literate age, I can now appreciate the damned pictures, and the newspaper articles. Here is Nast’s first illustration of Santa Claus for the cover of Harper’s Weekly, bedecked in the Union stars and stripes, distributing presents to the soldiers in camp:

Harper's Weekly, 3 January 1863

Harper’s Weekly, 3 January 1863

And here is the text that accompanies it:


Children, you mustn’t think that Santa Claus comes to you alone. You see him in the picture on pages 8 and 9 throwing out boxes to the soldiers, and in the one on page 1 you see what they contain. In the fore-ground you see a little drummer-boy, who, on opening his Christmas-box, beholds a jack-in-a-box spring up, much to his astonishment. His companion is so much amused at so interesting a phenomenon that he forgets his own box, and it lies in the snow, unopened, beside him. He was just going to take a bite out of that apple in his hand, but the sight of his friend’s gift has made him forget all about it. He has his other hand on a Harper’s Weekly. Santa Claus has brought lots of those for the soldiers, so that they, too, as well as you little folks, may have a peep at the Christmas number.

One soldier, on the left, finds a stocking in his box stuffed with all sorts of things. Another, right behind him, has got a meerschaum pipe, just what he has been wishing for ever so long.

Santa Claus is entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis’s future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.

He hasn’t got to the soldiers in the back-ground yet, and they are still amusing themselves at their merry games. One of them is trying to climb a greased pole, and, as he slips down sometimes faster than he goes up, all the others who are looking at him have a great deal of fun at his expense. Others are chasing a greased boar. One fellow thought he just had him; but he is so slippery that he can’t hold him, and so he tumbles over on his face, and the next one that comes tumbles over him.

In another place they are playing a game of foot-ball, and getting a fine appetite for their Christmas dinner, which is cooking on the fire. See how nicely the soldiers have decorated the encampment with greens in honor of the day! And they are firing a salute to Santa Claus from the fort, and they have erected a triumphal arch to show him how welcome he is to them.

But Santa Claus must hurry up and not stay here too long; for he has to go as far south as New Orleans, and ever so far out West; so he says, “G’lang!” and away he goes through the arch like lightning, for he must give all our soldiers a Merry Christmas.

The Confederate President’s grisly capital punishment adds a certain weight to the holiday, especially for the writer’s appeal to a young audience. War does crazy things to us all. By Christmas, 1863, every reader wanted a break from the fighting:

Harper's Weekly, 26 December 1863

Harper’s Weekly, 26 December 1863


Ought it not to be a merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled—ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?

How well Mr. Nast has seized the spirit of the great festival in the elaborate and beautiful picture which we publish this week! The central scene is the home of the soldier and his Christmas welcome from wife and darlings, for just that is the central scene of our American holidays this year. It is the soldier who has saved us our homes and filled our holidays with joy. It is the soldier who is lifting the dark winter-cloud beyond which smiles the bright spring of national regeneration. It is the soldier who is securing the peace that will make the life of the children sleeping together in the crib, and over whom the dear old bear, Santa Claus, is bending, a long and happy holiday.

Next year let us hope that the delicate, and thoughtful, and forcible pencil of our friend Nast may draw a picture of the National reunion, of the return of the prodigal who has been living on husks and with harlots, the rebel soldier returning to his country and his fellow-citizens, the soldier who did not know that in fighting the brave man whom we see in the picture of to-day, he was fighting his true friend, as well as honor and liberty. Peace on earth is the Christmas benediction. Blessed then the brave men upon the Rio Grande, in Louisiana, along the Mississippi, in the mountains of Chattanooga, in the Valley at Knoxville, upon the Potomac, and the Rappahannock, and the James River; among the North Carolina barrens and the South Carolina Islands, with the great army of sailors upon the rivers and the sea—to all, whether on sea or land, heroes of the good cause, honor and blessing; for their stout hands and hearts, with the supporting sympathy and faith of the whole people, are the peacemakers of the nation.

Peace is a recurring theme for Harper’s Weekly during the holidays. Peace, and the prayer for peace to those who cannot attain it in their immediate environment. Much is made of the January 1, 1881 image of “Merry Old Santa Claus” illustrated by Nast and considered the standard for our icon:

Harper's Weekly, 1 January 1881

Harper’s Weekly, 1 January 1881

There is the beard, the hat, the toys, the plump jollity, and an underlying patriotism. And here is the poem that followed it:


The wind had the sound of a laugh in the brown and trodden court,
And the flag of our love was waving over the great white fort;
For the captain had said, with pleasant smiles: “Boys, this is a day divine:
Go gather some holly and mistletoe, and weave the sacred sign.”

Out by the Conchos’ languid pools, and into its woods, they went,
And back brought wax-white mistletoe and the pine-tree’s spicy scent,
The crimson fruit of the yupon-tree, the hanging moss green-gray,
And all to deck the great white fort in honor of Christmas-day.

The fort grew like a fairy bower: each worked with a willing hand,
Telling the Christmas joys and mirth that blessed their own dear land.
Then said a simple German youth, fresh from the Zyder-Zee,
“Mine comrades, den, no Christmas comes widout ze Christmas tree.”

“How shall we get a Christmas tree?” Then the captain’s wife stepped out:
“Boys, bare your heads to the Saviour first—He seeth you, no doubt—
Then say a prayer for the souls you love, and I will let you see
How on this barren court shall rise a glorious Christmas tree.”

Bare-headed in the soft south air they stood a moment’s space.
Then came the [__] and sweet command: “Stack rifles in this place;
Crown them with wreath of mistletoe, and drink to this joyful strain:
‘Here’s to the Land we love! here’s Peace! and here’s to our Homes again!’”

The prowling Comanche saw the lights and heard the joyful shout,
And wondered in his wily heart, “What them white men about?”
And one of a weary Ranger band said, “Comrades, we’re astray:
Face right about, and to the fort; they’re keeping Christmas-day.”

They stacked their rifles with the rest. “We’ll help you make the tree:
A tree of peace and right good-will is none ’gainst Liberty.”
They lowly spoke and kindly felt, and when they went their way,
They said, “God bless you, brothers all! and God bless Christmas-day!”

By 1890, Thomas Nast’s run at Harper’s Weekly was over, but not before he published Christmas Drawings for the Human Race for Harper & Brothers. Woodcutting, the technology behind Nast’s mass-produced illustration, was ten years’ past its prime. When publishing companies moved to the far more accurate photoengraving and halftone processes, Nast’s illustrations became crude by comparison. But the symbols of Nast’s visual allegory continue to carry weight while our social urge for higher definition carries us toward a virtual reality lacking any substance. I would like to end with an image that portrays the convergence of old with the new, tradition and technology, created by Thomas Nast at the same time he hosted Mark Twain and George W. Cable for Thanksgiving in 1884.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!

Harper's Weekly, 20 December 1884

Harper’s Weekly, 20 December 1884


7 responses

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