Saturday, December 1, 2018

Santa Claus and the Political Satirist

St. Nicholas was generous
but not cheerful
In "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas" from its opening line) Clement Moore described Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus as a chubby "right jolly old elf". This was a distinct departure from the usual representation of Saint Nick as a thin, serious, monastic figure--the Christian bishop of Myra, Greece--or as the also thin, slightly less serious, "Father Christmas", an English creation based on the Old English god, Woden.

Father Christmas brought cheer
but no gifts
Moore's poem was published in 1822. Forty years later, a German-born naturalized American, Thomas Nast, listened as his wife read Moore's poem to the family. In the imagination of a political satirist and caricaturist who got his start as a war artist for Harper's Weekly, the Santa Claus we know today began to take shape. Nast's conceptualization first appeared in his drawing, "A Christmas Furlough", published on the front page of Harper's in December, 1863.

Over the next 22 years, Nast honed his idea of how Santa looked and dressed. Stout, white-bearded, cheerful Santa changed his costume color over the years, but little else. Before settling on a red suit around 1869 Nast clothed his Santa in green, then brown. Nast was also responsible for giving us the North Pole, the list of good and bad boys and girls, and letters to Santa. Nast used drawings of his own five children in many of his later Santa Claus illustrations.

Nast's bearded, slightly portly Santa dispensed both
good cheer and gifts to Union soldiers

 Ironically, the man who created today's well-known and beloved version of Santa Claus was best known for his highly opinionated and caustic political cartoons. He was so good at drawing attention to the criminal activities of the notoriously corrupt William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, that Tweed was jailed for the rest of his life. This earned Thomas Nast enough threats from Tweed's associates that he moved his family from New York City to Morristown, New Jersey for their protection. Nast's political cartoons were so persuasive, they actually influenced the outcome of six presidential elections between 1864 and 1884, earning Nast the nickname "The President Maker". It was Nast who popularized the elephant and the donkey as symbols of the two major political parties.

After he left Harper's in 1886, Nast fell into serious debt as a result of bad investments. In 1902 he applied for a State Department job. President Theodore Roosevelt, who admired Nast's work, appointed him Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Shortly after arriving at his new post, Thomas Nast contracted yellow fever and died five months later. His Santa Claus lives on.
Nast's brown-suited Santa Claus in a rag book entitled
"Santa Claus and his Works". The book has been
in my family since its publication in 1869.

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