If Clement Clark Moore is primarily responsible for our literary description of Santa Claus with his poem T’was The Night Before Christmas. Thomas Nast is responsible for many of his colorful and unique character traits in their visual form.
Thomas Nast was a legendary caricaturist of German descent known as the godfather of the American cartoon. Born in Landau, Germany, Nast’s family immigrated to New York City when he was six. Nast showed an interest in drawing from an early age, but much less so in school, dropping out at the age of 14. He briefly studied at the National Academy of Art, and in 1885 went to work for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
The start of the Civil War created an increase in the public’s demand for illustrated news from the war front. In 1862, Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, and earned recognition for his vivid, compassionate battlefield and camp scenes.
It was Thomas Nast who created the symbol of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and he who popularized the figure of Uncle Sam. He is also responsible for the jolly St. Nick we know today. Appearing on January 3, 1863, in the illustrated magazine Harper’s Weekly, two images cemented the nation’s obsession with a jolly old elf. The first drawing shows Santa distributing presents in a Union Army camp. A second illustration features Santa in his sleigh, then going down a chimney, all in the periphery.
Nast’s illustrations are also credited with the first time Santa is mentioned to have his workshop located in the North Pole. December 29, 1866, Harper’s Weekly featured one image by Nast showing Santa and being from a village called “Santa Claussville, N.P.” — N.P. is of course short for North Pole. Harpers seized on the situation shortly after and did “research” to confirm that Santa was indeed fro the North Pole.
Those illustrators such as Haddon Sundblom, J.C. Leyendecker and the well known Norman Rockwell all borrowed the look and feel of their Santas from Nast.
By the mid-1880s, Nast’s contributions to Harper’s dwindled and he left the magazine in 1886. Soon after, due to bad investments, Nast fell heavily into debt. In 1902, he applied for a job in the State Department, hoping to secure a consular position. President Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of Nast’s work, offered him an appointment as the Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast accepted and traveled to Ecuador on July 1, 1902 where he contracted yellow fever and died just five months later. His body was returned to the United States and he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
So, when you think about your visions of Santa dancing in your imagination think of the man who gave him is coat and sleigh.