At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Santa Claus was still a character to be defined. What could he wear? In magazines people did not know how to draw him, whether as Bishop St Nicholas, or like an Elf with green spats and trousers. Thomas Nast, a German designer who moved to America, found the solution to all the problems of clothing and appearance of the famous Santa Claus.
Thomas Nast’s story began similarly to that of the many migrants who built America during the 19th century.
He was born on September 27, 1840, in Landau, Germany. In 1946, when he was 6 years old, his mother, Appolonia, brought him and his sister to the United States, in New York City. His father, a musician who played in the 9th regiment of Bavaria, Joseph Thomas Nast, joined them in 1849 at the end of his enlistment.
Thomas Nast attended school in New York City and even from an early age he showed an interest in drawing.
The father, having noticed the talent of the young for drawing, sent him for a short period at the National Academy of Design. At 15, the financial resources of the Nast family ended, and the boy tried to find work with Frank Leslie, owner of the magazine “Leslie Illustrated”. Annoyed by the boy, Leslie commissioned him an impossible task: draw the crowd to the Christopher Street Ferry. Thomas returned with such a beautiful drawing that Leslie hired him immediately.
In 1859 Nast he drawing for the weekly magazine of Harper’s Weekly, a collaboration that would last for more than twenty-five years. In September 1861 he married Sarah Edwards, and they had five children, Julia, Thomas, Jr., Edith, Mabel, and Cyril.
He was a great political designer, he documented news stories such as the Unification of Italy following Garibaldi or major sporting events such as the boxing match between John C. Heenan and Thomas Sayers in London. He is also called the inventor of the American comic, and his drawings have become timeless icons such as the Elephant symbol of the Republican Party, the Donkey symbol of the Democrats, the Tiger Tammany Hall and even the latest version of Uncle Sam. In 1862 he joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly where he focused his efforts on political cartoons. Thomas Nast was a Radical Republican who favored abolition and opposed segregation. He supported Abraham Lincoln and President Abraham Lincoln described Nast as the “best recruiting sergeant” for the Union cause since his sketches inspired readers to support the war effort.
One of the most inspiring pictures was “Christmas Eve,” a double-circle picture that shows a soldier’s wife praying for the safety of her husband and in the next circle appears a soldier seated by a campfire, looking at photographs of his family. In the right corner of the drawing Santa Claus is shown riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And in the left corner he is shown climbing down a chimney.
In the past Santa Claus was presented in various ways but Thomas Nast conceived and introduced our modern icon of Santa Claus. For the next 30 years Nast continued to draw Santa changing the color of his coat from tan to the red he’s known for today. His image of Santa Claus was also the inspiration for the Coca Cola company’s modern Santa Claus!
If the old man was first known as a skinny thin man, Nast went back to the German tradition and proposed an elder with a long beard and mustache, with a prominent bump and a sympathetic, loving and protective look. The first illustration of modern Santa Claus dates back to 1863 and was published in Harper’s Weekly, in the image below:
Nast’s Santa Claus immediately appeared as a figure who kindly represented the feast of Christ’s birth, and who focused his attention on the children. Nast was first a fervent supporter of the rights of the last, and his work greatly influenced the nascent spirit of American solidarity.
To create Santa Claus, Nast was inspired by the figure of St. Nicholas, the fourth century bishop known for his kindness and generosity. St. Nicholas from Bari was already inspiring the figure of Santa Claus (he gave his possessions to the poor when he remained without parents), but the union between the Christian bishop and the German interpretation of man was still to be created. So, Nast designed him like a magical elf, with a long tights and a hat, with fur-trimmed hems and a long white beard.
In 1886 Thomas Nast stopped working for Harper’s Weekly and faced hard times in the next 6 years. He was appointed as U.S. counsel general for Ecuador by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Unfortunately he contracted yellow fever in Ecuador and died on December 7, 1902.
Even if Santa Claus existed from centuries (from the time of the Roman Saturnalia), in 1863 it was as if he had just been born!
Below, several illustrations of the mid-nineteenth century by Thomas Nast: