December 23, 2012

Civil War anniversary: Santa Claus and the Christmas of 1862

By Dr. Elizabeth Hoole McArthur Dalton 150th Civil War Commission

— 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.

On the cover

“Santa Claus in Camp” appeared on the cover of the same Jan. 3 Harper’s Weekly issue. It was intended to give families and children in the war-weary country a brief respite from the horrors of the battlefields and offer them a message of hope, that good and peace would eventually triumph.

 In this drawing Santa has moved from the periphery of the picture to the center of action. He appears as a benevolent figure with a long white beard visiting a Union camp.  He is dressed in a fur-trimmed suit of stars and stripes.  A sign in the background, beside the Union flag and near the soldiers’ tents, reads “Welcome Santa Claus.”  He is sitting on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, handing out gifts to children and soldiers.  One lucky soldier has received warm socks, one of the most prized gifts for fighting men during the war. Above and outside the picture the letters “U” and “S” prominently appear, stressing loyalty to the Union cause.

Because of these early drawings that included  Santa Claus, Nast is sometimes credited with “inventing” the popular image of Santa Claus.  But they were not entirely his own creation.  He drew heavily on his native German tradition of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop known for his kindness and generosity, on the Dutch time-honored character Sinterklaas, who brought children gifts at Christmas, on the British Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer, and other centuries-old traditions, folklore and stories from other lands.

Nast was also significantly influenced by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known as “The Night Before Christmas” and recited from memory by children and adults around the world.

Over the next 25 years Nast would create a series of Christmas drawings for Harper’s Weekly, developing and refining his image of Santa. The jolly elf-like character of Moore’s poem would eventually become the round-faced, rotund-figured old gentleman we know so well today, with a long white beard, dressed in a red and white suit and carrying a pipe with a swirl of smoke.

Not only did Nast capture the spirit of Moore’s poem, he also enhanced it. It was Nast who fashioned Santa’s toy workshop, positioned it at the North Pole, and created the tradition of mailing letters to him there. It was Nast who suggested Santa’s naughty-and-nice list, and who linked toys that were popular at the time to our vision of Christmas — toy soldiers, jack-in-the-boxes, dolls and wooden animals. While Nast may not have “invented” the image of Santa Claus, his artistry certainly brought it to life.

The earliest images of Santa Claus

“Santa Claus in Camp” and “Christmas Eve, 1862” were drawn for a war-torn country in 1862.  Now, 150 years later, they remain two of the most riveting images of the Civil War. Not only do his illustrations impart an insight into the politics of the war, they also offer a rare window into the deep and intense emotions of the people who lived through these difficult years, in both North and South.

And they give us our earliest image of Santa Claus.  Today Santa is known by children of all ages around the world.  He may appear adapted for different cultures, different languages, and different countries, but “Ho-Ho-Ho” translates the same everywhere.  

Santa Claus is a gift from the folklore of the centuries, the pen of Clement Clarke Moore and the artistry of Thomas Nast.  

Every year we eagerly await his visit, and every year, without fail, he brings us happiness. He is always jolly, always kind and always charitable.  No wonder he is so beloved by so many.

And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton-Whitfield 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or