Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center
Santa Claus is famously known for his keen ability to avoid detection by both children and their folks… until Thomas Nast’s swift pen captured the jolly old elf’s image. Nast’s first published image depicted Santa visiting Union Army troops in 1863 during a break in fighting in the Civil War. He appears seated on an Army wagon wearing a fur coat bedecked with stars and a pair of striped pants (mirroring the flag of the Republic) as he hands out gifts and copies of Harper’s Weekly to the gathered men.
Nast’s interpretation largely reflects elements of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, German Pelze Nichol, and the English Father Christmas; however, these earlier depictions showed a thin, stern figure who was just as likely to bring gifts to good boys and girls as he was to punish naughty children with the bundle of switches hanging from his belt.
Thomas Nast based his 1863 illustration of Santa Claus on Clement Moore’s iconic poem The Night Before Christmas, which was written in 1822 by the Professor of Religion living in New York City to amuse his family on Christmas Eve. (A relative secretly submitted a copy to a newspaper in Troy, NY, and its republishing quickly became an annual tradition.)
Nast described Santa as a “jolly old elf” with white hair and beard who kept tabs on children’s behavior from his workshop in the North Pole and gave presents to good girls and boys on Christmas Eve. Gone was the frightening image of a stern disciplinarian; Nast’s Santa Claus was nearly always smiling, and while he kept meticulous lists of children’s behavior, he frequently erred on the side of forgiveness.
Among the traits Nast assigned to Santa, few are more iconic than setting his base of operations in the North Pole, which is strategically placed equidistant from most of the Northern Hemisphere nations that celebrate Christmas, and is also located in territory that no one nation can claim.
Washington Irving first noted that Santa’s sleigh was pulled by a single flying reindeer, and Clement Moore increased this figure to eight, which Nast codified in his drawings. Nast also specified the tradition of hanging empty stockings by the fireplace in the hopes they would be filled with gifts.
In addition to Santa’s habit of reading letters and calls from children and their parents seeking to curry favor or request specific gifts, he is sometimes pictured with a long clay pipe (a holdover from the Dutch Sinter Klaas), as well as a sprig of holly on his hat (from the English Father Christmas).
As with most American customs, Santa Claus was influenced by an amalgam of religious and cultural traditions, in this case from Northern Europe and the Middle East, including Turkey, the Netherlands, England, and Germany. Saint Nicholas was born in 280 AD to an affluent family of Greek-speaking Turkish Christians. While working as a priest he encountered a destitute father of three daughters, for whom he was unable to provide; Nicholas anonymously gave the man enough gold for the eldest daughter’s dowry which allowed him to care for the other two children.
Nicholas subsequently repeated the good deed for the other two daughters before being discovered, at which time he fled town in order to escape the publicity; however, as Nicholas’ story spread he gained a cult following until the church made him the patron saint of childhood.
Nicholas’ story inspired the custom of hanging stockings by the fire, first in Asia Minor before the Bishop of Myra also became the patron saint of Russia who delivered gifts to children by horse. Despite being one of Russia’s most recognizable religious figures, during the 16th century the Church discouraged congregants from venerating St. Nicholas; rather, he traveled to Germany under the guise of Pelz-Nicol.
While St. Nicholas delivered gifts to good children on his own birthday, Pelz-Nicol changed this to Christmas Eve, thus connecting the holiday to the birth of Jesus Christ. The Dutch are often credited with importing the story of Sinter Claus to New Amsterdam during the colonial period. Nevertheless, many American customs were influenced by traditions later imported from Germany.
The first recorded decoration of winter homes with Fir trees dates to 1605 when affluent German families also began decorating them with paper flowers, fruit, and sweets. Trimming the trees with candles (a dangerous precursor to electric lights) also dates to 1737 Germany where the Weihnactsbaum, or “illuminated tree,” represented the starry sky above Bethlehem.
By the time Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree installed in 1840, the tradition quickly spread across England and from there to America. Father Christmas traveled around Great Britain spreading good will and encouraging both the wealthy and the poor to share a sense of holiday cheer – as in ancient winter festivals, this included a reversal of class roles, as wealthy landowners gifted servants and the less fortunate with food and money.
Scandinavian households made holiday preparations weeks in advance, cleaning and decorating the home with evergreens, as well as baking cookies and preparing the Yule Log for Christmas Day when the family celebrated a large feast and sang carols around the Tree surrounded by presents. In the Netherlands, children left empty shoes outside overnight to be filled with gifts by Sancte Klaas’ horse.
Other European traditions that have since become commonplace in the United States include the Italian custom of placing miniature nativity scenes and floral arrangements in churches during Advent, and in Mexico, processions through the streets symbolizing Mary and Joseph’s unsuccessful attempt to find shelter in the inhospitable town of Bethlehem that first Christmas Eve. To this day, many American towns hold elaborate Thanksgiving and Christmas parades.
Russell Roberts, “Thomas Nast: Santa’s Artist,” Austrian, Swiss, and German Life, LaVale, MD; Zeitgeist Publishing, December 2002, pg34
Jeffrey Eger, “Clement Moore and Thomas Nast: Santa Claus in the Big Apple,” Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, Vol 13, No. 1, pg 42
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John Battrom and Jeffrey Eger, “3D from 2D: An Authentic Re-creation of Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus Costume,” Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, Vol 13, No. 1, 1999, pg37
Thomas Nast Saint Hill, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, NY; Harper and Row, 1971, pg 35
St. Hill, 35
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St. Hill, 42
This article includes a correction to the final paragraph that stated nativity scenes and floral arrangements were placed in churches during Lent, rather than Advent.
Additional information on the Kemper Chambers and Thomas Nast Collections, can be found in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center.