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December 23, 2012

Civil War anniversary: Santa Claus and the Christmas of 1862

By Christmas of 1862 the war had been going on a year and a half.  Dreadful battles, brother against brother, had already been fought — First and Second Manassas/Bull Run, Forts Henry and Donelson, Pittsburg Landing/Shiloh, the Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Battles, Harpers Ferry,  Sharpsburg/Antietam, Fredericksburg and more. It had already been a long and tragic war, with thousands of casualties on both sides. And there was no end in sight.

Tragedy, grief, sadness, deprivation, heartache know no boundaries in war.  Families on both sides of the conflict, North and South, had felt the long, grim arm of war. At Christmas, when times are difficult and families are separated, the despair is even more difficult to bear.

Yet, even in the midst of  this misery, there was still a longing for some glimmer of hope, a desire for some small measure of merriment at the Yuletide season.  Amazingly, from this sad Christmas of 1862, came the picture of one of the best-loved, kindest, most generous characters of all time, Santa Claus.

The image of Santa Claus was the creation of a young artist named Thomas Nast.  The kindly old gentleman debuted in two of Nast’s drawings published in the popular New York-based news magazine Harper’s Weekly on Jan. 3, 1863.  Both drawings were created to give expression to the heartfelt emotions of the war-time Christmas season.  But they both also carried a strong political message.  

Born in Germany in 1840, Nast had been brought to New York by his mother at the age of 6. He had studied art, become a draftsman in 1854 at age 15 for  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, then moved to the New York Illustrated News in 1859.  By the summer of 1862 he had secured a position with Harper’s Weekly as a war correspondent.  He soon became known for drawing battlefield scenes that dramatically illustrated the horrors of war for civilians back home.

Nast vehemently opposed slavery and was a fierce supporter of the Union cause. His position at Harper’s Weekly offered him a weekly platform with national circulation.  He frequently and dramatically used his artistic talents as a caricaturist, illustrator and political cartoonist to advance his views. Even his two drawings for Christmas of 1862 that included Santa conveyed strong Union messages.  

“Christmas Eve, 1862” was  intended to memorialize the sacrifices of the Union families during these early and, for the North, dark days of war.  The despondency and heartache are unmistakable. On the left a wife, separated from her soldier-husband, kneels in earnest prayer late at night on Christmas Eve, gazing in sadness at the moonlit night sky.  Behind her are her two children, sleeping in bed.  Hanging on the wall is a picture of her husband.  On the right, her husband sits with his rifle beside a lonely campfire on a cold winter night, snow falling around him, holding photographs of the family he deeply loves and misses.

Surrounding these images are several small scenes. In the upper left is Santa Claus crawling into a chimney, his reindeer on the roof, and in the upper right, Santa in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. At the bottom are reminders that the cruel war continued unabated on land and on sea:  on the left are soldiers marching in snow, on the right are ships in a rolling ocean, and in the center, graves of fallen soldiers.

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