By Henry M. Holden
The image of Santa Claus is iconic. He strikes a portly figure, with a fluffy, white-as-snow beard, red coat with a white faux fur collar and cuffs, white fur-cuffed trousers, a red hat with white-fur trim, white gloves, and black belt and boots, carrying a bag of gifts for all good children. His jolly delivery makes young and old find a warm spot in their heart for this legend. And he is fondly remembered through the illustrations of Thomas Nast.
Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and his family moved from Germany to Elmhurst, N.Y. when Nast was six years old.
Nast was not a good student in the normal sense of the word, spending much of his time doodling. When his parents put him in art school when he was thirteen, he flourished almost overnight.
The original drawing, Santa was an elfish-looking figure wearing a brown fur suit with stars on it. Nast’s Santa grew in size and shape and the suit evolved into the ensemble that resembles the image of the jolly St. Nick that is ubiquitous today.
The first image of Santa Claus appeared in the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly, a political magazine of the day. By this time Nast was already known for his political caricatures.
The image was not the iconic and beloved figure we know, but a likeness of Nast in a Union encampment giving gifts to the Union soldiers, basically saying they were the good soldiers, and Confederate soldiers were the enemy, and would not get any gifts.
The Santa Claus idea had existed before Nast’s first illustration in 1862. Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus, inspired by a poem composed forty years earlier by Clement Moore who had written, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore had created the poem for the amusement of his six small grandchildren. But his wife had recorded the poem in the family Bible; and later made its way into print. Nast apparently read the poem and drew Santa Claus, with sleigh and reindeer, much as Moore had described him. Nast also modeled some of his early depictions of Santa after his own image, so, a lot of his early Santa Claus images resembled Nast.
Nast provided Harper’s Weekly with annual Christmas drawings until 1886. It was during this time that the iconic image we know today evolved.
Nast, a long-time Morristown resident, and Clement Moore, American professor of Biblical languages were responsible for creating the Victorian image of Santa Claus that we still know and use today. They gave the world a new image of St. Nicholas, one that would live in the hearts of children for generations to come.
Nast’s Christmas themed work allowed him to use the Morristown neighborhood in which he lived and its backdrop of spires on the town’s churches, to drawings views of the town frequently in his Christmas drawings. In the latter part of the 19th century, there were no less than seven churches within a few blocks of Nast’s Morristown home, and most of them still exist.
Nast and his family lived in a house on Macculloch Ave, (Villa Fontana) across from the Macculloch Hall and Museum (which today holds a large collection of Nast’s work). The house still stands but is under private ownership.
This side of Nast’s work is significantly different from the world of political cartoons he is most famous for. Nast is most remembered for his cartoons that took down, “Boss” William M. Tweed, and the Tammany Hall Democratic party’s political machine in New York City, in 1871.
Tweed was arrested, broke out of jail, fled to Cuba and Spain, before being extradited and dying in a New York City jail, in 1878.
Nast is often considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”.