When Thomas Nast (1840-1902) died, he was eulogized as the “Father of American Political Cartoon” by the New York Times. He spent thirty years between 1857 and 1887 as an illustrator and cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly. But, political cartoons were not his only claim to fame.

Between 1863 and 1886, Thomas Nast drew 33 Christmas drawings for Harper’s. Santa appeared in or was referenced in 32 of those. His first Santa appeared in the January 3, 1863 issue. Santa was a small elf giving gifts to Union soldiers in camp. His other Civil War Christmas illustrations had Santa taking a backseat to scenes of home and hearth.

Thomas Nast’s illustration titled “Santa and His Works” was published in 1866. It depicted a glimpse into Santa’s life, from toy making to watching for naughty and nice children and making a note in his record book. We even see Santa relaxing after a long night of delivering toys! There is no doubt that he was influenced by Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas the Night Before Christmas.”). He also was influenced by his Bavarian heritage. This illustration is also the first time that Santa’s home is depicted as the North Pole. Until Nast came along, American publishers typically set Santa’s home in a state in the Northeast where snow was abundant. He became an international ambassador of goodwill once he resided at the North Pole.

While his children were young, Thomas Nast depicted Santa as a parental disciplinarian, reading letters from children and parents. In one cartoon from 1870, Santa jumps out of a Jack-in-the-box clutching a switch for spanking and surprises two naughty children.

Throughout the 1870s, Santa changed into the character who delivers gifts unseen by children but is constantly trying to be seen by them. By the time Nast’s children were teens, he was depicting Santa in direct communication with children. He created images of children sending letters to Santa, talking to him on the telephone, and affectionately embracing a group of ecstatic children. Thomas Nast’s final Santa illustrations show him offering himself as a gift.

So, thank you, Thomas Nast, for creating the first of the modern depictions of our beloved Santa Claus.

And, thank you, for being a Recollections customer!

– Donna Klein

Source: Santa Claus and His Works