This illustration of Santa distributing gifts to Union soldiers during the Civil War was the first of 33 depictions of Santa that political cartoonist Thomas Nast created for Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886. It appeared on the cover of the 3 January 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
Although Thomas Nast certainly didn’t invent the idea of Santa Claus as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” he played an unmistakable role in how people from the Civil War onward “see” Santa. The jolly elf described in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” is here, albeit dressed in Stars and Stripes and distributing gifts to soldiers, not children. While many on the home front were experiencing a Christmas marked by wartime deprivation, these soldiers on the front revel in the distribution of gift boxes and Christmas festivities. Despite the chill in the air, their excitement is palpable. Harper’s sets the scene on page 6:
Children, you mustn’t think that Santa Claus comes to you alone. You see him in the picture on pages 8 and 9 throwing out boxes to the soldiers and in the one on page 1 you see what they contain. In the fore-ground you see a little drummer-boy, who, on opening his Christmas box, beholds a Jack-in-a-box sprung up, much to his astonishment … One soldier, on the left, finds a stocking in his box stuffed with all sorts of things. Another right behind him, has got a meerschaum pipe, just what he has been wishing for ever so long …
The description goes on to note the soldiers playing at their “merry games,” climbing a greased pole, chasing a greased boar, and playing football as they await their Christmas dinner. Nast did not, however, resist politicizing his Santa. In addition to his patriotic garb and the fact that he is visiting a Union camp, Santa holds a puppet, “entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis’s future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.”
Later in the same issue, Nast draws a more sentimental take on Christmas Eve, depicting Santa again, but focusing on the images of a woman and child at home opposite their husband and father on the battlefield. According to Nast biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, this image touched the hearts of readers:
Letters from every corner of the Union came to the Harper office with messages of thanks for that inspired picture. A colonel wrote to tell how it had reached him on Christmas eve, and had been unfolded by the light of his own camp-fire, and how his tears had fallen upon the page. “It was only a picture,” he said, “but I couldn’t help it.”
Renowned for giving us the iconography of the Republican elephant and Tammany Tiger—among many others--Thomas Nast was born at a military barracks in Landau, Germany in 1840, where his father was a trombonist in the 9th Regiment Bavarian Band. With his family, Nast emigrated to the United States as a young boy and attended school in New York City, where his talents as an artist (rather than a scholar) soon became apparent. Barely sixteen, Nast brought some of his drawings work to the publishing house of Frank Leslie, who assigned him to draw the ferry landing at Hoboken on a bustling Sunday. Leslie later admitted that he had “no expectation of the little fellow’s doing it, and gave him the job merely for the purpose of bringing home to his youthful mind the absurdity of his application.” Nonetheless, young Thomas returned the next Monday morning with a completed drawing, which Leslie published in the 11 October 1856 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Thus began a career that lasted nearly a half century, with Nast providing material for many of the popular illustrated newspapers of the era, including Leslie’s, the New York Illustrated News, and Harper’s Weekly, with whom he was associated until 1886. With his Civil War illustrations for Harper’s, Nast was said by General Ulysses S. Grant to have done “as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.” In the pages of Harper’s, Nast tackled reconstruction, presidential campaigns, political corruption, immigration, and many other issues of the day.
Late in his life, Nast struggled—most of his fortune was lost to a swindle in 1884 and his style of political cartooning was going out of vogue. His final published illustration—a double-page spread featuring Santa visiting the White House and leaving gifts for the Roosevelt children--appeared where it all began for Nast, in the pages of Leslie’s Weekly. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt offered him an appointment as United States Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador, which Nast accepted, arriving in July of that year. By December, the great illustrator was dead, the victim of an outbreak of yellow fever ravaging the country.
The Massachusetts Historical Society is featuring two virtual exhibitions incorporating the work of Thomas Nast. Who Counts? A Look at Voter Rights through Political Cartoons features works by Nast and other political cartoonists that explore the multi-faceted history of voting rights in the United States.
Thomas Nast a Life in Cartoons explores Nast’s life and career through his own work and that of several 21st century cartoonists.
The 1863 volume of Harper’s Weekly is available on the Internet Archive.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “A Civil War Cartoonist Created the Modern Image of Santa Claus as Union Propaganda,” Smithsonianmag.com, December 19, 2018.
Brookes, James, “Thomas Nast’s Divided Christmas,” emergingcivilwar.com, January 3, 2016.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures New York: Macmillan, 1904.