At the Wording Desk

Increase your knowledge of English by learning how words and cultural icons came to their modern meaning

A neat Christmas class project

for grade school students

Santa Claus in the American Civil War, drawn by the great American caricaturist and illustrator, Thomas Nast.

Description from a Nast exhibit: “This is Thomas Nast's earliest published picture of Santa Claus.  Nast is generally credited with creating our popular image of Santa. This illustration appeared in the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper's Weekly, and shows Santa Claus visiting a Civil War Camp.  In the background, a sign can be seen that reads “Welcome Santa Claus.”

The illustration shows Santa handing out gifts to children and soldiers.  One soldier receives a new pair of socks, which would no doubt be one of the most wonderful things a soldier of the time could receive. Santa is pictured sitting on his sleigh, which is being pulled by reindeer.  Santa is pictured with a long white beard, a furry hat, collar and belt.  We can see that many of our modern perceptions of Santa Claus are demonstrated in this 153 year old print.”

Thomas Nast, the man who, along with Clement Moore, created our current North American image of Santa Claus, was profiled in the New Yorker magazine (pp. 84-102, December 15, 1997). Here is an excerpt from that article by Adam Gopnik.

"Like so many of the great makers of nineteenth-century American art, Nast was a foreigner. He was born in 1840 in the little German town of Landau. His father was a musician, who played trombone in a military band. He was also a liberal of the great generation of 1848 and, with his family, he fled reaction to come to New York. Nast was a pure product of the German-American culture that in many ways dominated New York then, and still survives, in fragments, up around East Eighty-sixth Street. It was a culture built around sacredness of concert music, particularly Beethoven (Nast's father was a member of the Philharmonic Society, and, odd as it seems now, after a hundred years of darker views of Germanness, around a sense of comfort that eventually produced the American cult of Christmas. In Nast's generation, it was the Germans who brought warmth and music to a parched and tinny American Protestantism.

"More important, Nast remained a German artist in the same manner that Audubon remained French. He had a distinctly German combination of liberal feeling and prim, self-righteous Protestant offense at excess; it is not always easy to separate the anti-corruption from the anti-Catholic feeling in his mature cartooning."

Overview of Nast
"To a greater degree than any other American caricaturist, Nast broadened the graphic vocabulary of the political cartoonist by popularizing such symbols as Uncle Sam, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, and the Tammany tiger. Truly Nast was the father of American cartooning, for he expanded its scope and established the conventions that brought the art to maturity."

― J. Chal Vinson, Thomas Nast: Political Cartoonist Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1967

Targets of Nast's Satire & Mockery

Thomas Nast mocked Tammany Hall's notorious king of corruption, Boss Tweed, and, through years of merciless and fearless caricature, helped promote the downfall of one of New York City's crookedest politicians.

The Meridian of Life from “Shakespeare's Voyage of Life” in Nast's Almanac for 1872. The figure is William Marcy Tweed, Boss Tweed, portrayed as a corrupt judge accepting bribes behind his back. Nast’s continual attack upon Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine was a significant factor in the collapse of Tweed's regime in New York by 1872.

Above are two original drawings by Thomas Nast of Boss Tweed. The political corruption that gripped New York City between 1865 and 1872 at the hands of William Marcy Tweed and his Tammany Hall organization was perhaps the greatest inspiration for the work of Thomas Nast.

Nast also decried racism of all kinds in his caricatures. Below is an editorial cartoon concerning “the Chinese Question” of the day. It does not seem too far removed from the bigotry of modern North America directed against all Muslims.









Picturing Merry Old Saint Nick
Charles Dickens taught us how to feel about Christmas, an amalgam of heart-clogging, glutinous smarm stirred into an obscenely bubbling vat of hypocritical and pietistical Christian ‘love’ sentiment.

Dickens perceptively noted that Christmas do-goodism was the Christian's imprimatur to fleece and disembowel his fellow humans during the remainder of the year, so that Christmas celebratory shenanigans became a morals-numbing procedure almost as efficacious as Roman Catholic confession.

Thomas Nast taught us how to picture Santa Claus, as a sausage-eating, bowel-bursting Bavarian yock-meister, dandling wee ones on one knee and fobbing tinny little toys off on their innocence while, beneath a bounteous beard that might have served as a plague nest for albino mice, the old bandit glugged down slurps of schnapps. Ho-ho-ho.

At the top of this page as the title graphic is Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus," from Harper's Weekly, January 1, 1881.

Ultimate Source of Nast's Santa Claus

Compare the photograph of Thomas Nast at the top of this column with Nast's portrait of Santa Claus. His jolly old elf of Christmastide is either a satiric self-parody or an idealized image of the bonhommie he wanted to project in life, outside his caricatures and within his familial surround.

Both Thomas Nast and Boss Tweed are worthwhile subjects for further study and might make a soothing spoon of corrective mood syrup, an antidote to the tsunamic onrush of treacle that engulfs and drowns us at this festering season of the year.

Here, have a humbug.

Bill Casselman, November 30, 2016

Copyright 2016 of Casselman original text, William Gordon Casselman


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Thomas Nast  1840-1902

Bill Casselman