poppy image  Thomas Nast: Creator Of Santa Claus poppy image
  AND The Political Cartoon In America

I suppose you once believed that Santa Claus has been with us since time began. Well, think again, because he was actually born in the latter half of the 19th century and is a comparative youngster as legends go. He was created during the American Civil War by Thomas Nast, a German immigrant who was also the father of the political cartoon in America.

Nast was born in 1840 in Landau, Germany. His father was a liberal-minded trumpeter. To escape political oppression in his homeland he emigrated to America with his family in 1846.

This was none too soon, for in 1848 a revolution broke out in Germany and many democratically inclined citizens were jailed. Others, many of them highly educated, fled to America where they became known as the 48ers in the growing German community.

As America’s foremost cartoonist Nast often struck fear into the hearts of corrupt politicians such as Boss Tweed of New York’s Tammany Hall. It was mainly due to Nast’s caricatures that Tweed was eventually thrown out of office.

During the election campaign in 1874 Nast created the elephant and the donkey as symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. As a republican he took a subtle swipe at the Democrats by choosing a donkey to represent their party.

This did not go unnoticed by German-Americans because the German word for donkey is “esel” which is also a synonym for ‘dummy.” Nast also popularized the caricatures of John Bull, Uncle Sam and something we see practically every day – at least some of us do – the dollar sign, “$.”

However, Nast is best remembered at Christmastime for the new image of Santa Claus he created.

Where did he get the idea for Santa Claus? Most likely it came from his German heritage. Though only six years old when he was brought to America, he probably remembered the old Nikolaus of his youth. A tall, tired old man who wore a green fur-trimmed coat and came on foot during the night at Christmas to bring gifts for good little boys and girls.

Nast made Nikolaus a saint of sorts by calling him “Santa,” the Spanish designation for a female saint, and naming him “Claus” the familiar short form for Nikolaus. He also made him short, fat and jolly. Nast’s Claus wore a short fur-trimmed red coat with a wide black belt and black boots, and he traveled by sleigh drawn by a span of reindeer. Many say ‘Santy Claus” (saint-Ni-Klaus) is an Americanization of the German words for “Saint Nikolaus.” Many German speaking immigrants lived in America.

The first illustration of the Santa Claus we know so well appeared in Harper’s magazine during the American Civil War, in articles entitled “Christmas Eve” and “Santa Claus in Camp.” These drawings particularly appealed to Union soldiers who had to spend Christmas away from home.

Nast’s popularity grew in leaps and bounds and in 1889 Harper’s brought out a Christmas special entitled “Thomas Nast’s Drawings for Mankind.” These included many of his Christmas illustrations. It was a huge success and made Nast a household name in America.

Nast’s biting political cartoons were instrumental in getting former Union General Ulysses Grant elected president of the United States. Grant gave him credit for this when he wrote: “Two things helped me to win this election, Sheridan’s sword and Nast’s pen.” Unfortunately Nast’s financial success was short-lived. Together with Grant, he established a publishing house, which failed, leaving him and Grant practically penniless.

Theodore Roosevelt, too, felt sorry for the impoverished Nast and made him U.S. consul in Ecuador, the land of eternal spring. Nast died there in 1902 of yellow fever, for which there was no cure at the time. It was a sad end for a man who contributed so much to honesty in politics and brought joy to generations of Americans with his Santa Claus.

Nast may be dead, but Santa Claus lives on and continues to bring joy to children all over the world every year at Christmas time

by Frank Schmidt

This article was published Dec. 18, 2006 in the American Free Press

We extend our gratitude to Frank Schmidt of Heimat Publishers for giving his permission to republish it here for your reading pleasure.

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