Local News

December 23, 2012

Civil War anniversary: Santa Claus and the Christmas of 1862


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.

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