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November 1999

Man of the year

Illustrator Thomas Nast drew the first Santa Claus as we know him today

He visits us on the night before Christmas. He flies through the air in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer and makes frequent stops to deliver presents to well-behaved children, via the chimney. Santa Claus, a central figure in the celebration of Christmas, is one of America’s most popular folk icons. Though he resides predominantly at the North Pole, there can be no doubt that Santa Claus is an invention of the New World. The New York Times emphasized this point in 1940: “his is an American success story like Mr. Carnegie’s or Mr. Rockefeller’s, as much American as the harvester, the telephone and the airplane.” The roots of this merry old fellow can be traced back to the Old World, to Asia Minor to be exact. In Southwestern Turkey, numerous stories surround the legendary Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who lived in the fourth century. Most notably, St. Nicholas is reputed to have given three bags of gold to three girls for their marriage dowries to save them from prostitution or being sold into slavery. A cult in his honor was established in the East in the sixth century. In 1087, the saint’s remains and shrine were stolen by Italian sailors and merchants, who took them to Bari, Italy, where a church was built to house them. This removal greatly increased Nicholas’ popularity and patronage in the West. Merchants, pawnbrokers, pharmacists, perfumiers and children — all walks of life claimed him as their patron. But the saintly bishop, whose birthday was allegedly celebrated on December 6, is worlds away from the Santa Claus we know today. It is generally believed that Dutch settlers brought the cult of St. Nicholas to America in the 17th century. Washington Irving’s contribution to the shaping of the legend is less well known, however. In his humorous History of New York, published on December 6, 1809, Irving gave a detailed, if completely fabricated, account of St. Nick’s early days in America. The writer regaled readers with the story of the first Dutch colonists, who regarded the deceased bishop as their personal saint. “In the sylvan days of New Amsterdam,” wrote Irving, “the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city on a holiday afternoon, riding jovially among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing magnificent presents from his breeches-pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites.” In the author’s own days, he sadly continued, the saint visited only once a year and confined his bestowal of presents to good children. As Irving was a convincing storyteller, a myth was born. A few years later, it was a distant acquaintance of Irving — and a rather unlikely candidate — who embellished the Nicholas fiction. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, founder of the General Theological Seminary and professor of Greek and Oriental literature, wrote a long Christmas poem for his children. An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (1823), better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The yuletide favorite, which endows Santa Claus with his now familiar features, is said to have been reprinted more than any other poem in the world. Moore described Santa as a “jolly old elf” dressed in fur, with cheeks like roses and a “little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.” He also invented the infamous flock of German-named reindeer and moved Santa’s visit to Christmas Eve. Despite the verses’ popularity, pictures of Santa Claus remained few, varied and bore little resemblance to the images we know today. Enter Thomas Nast. The young artist, who was to become the “father of American political cartooning,” was at the beginning of his career when he drew his first Santa Claus. It was the time of the American Civil War and Nast worked as a pictorial reporter in the field for Harper’s Weekly. In his 1862 illustration Santa Claus in Camp, Santa stands on the side of the North, clad in stars and stripes, distributing presents from his reindeer sleigh to cheering soldiers. A generator of much-needed smiles during troubled times, Nast’s endearing Santa was an immediate success. For the next 30 years, Nast’s Christmas page became a Harper’s fixture. German-born Nast had immigrated to America with his family when he was a boy. Feared by his political enemies for his fierce and relentless attacks, the illustrator earned himself the nickname “Nasty Nast.” The Christmas illustrations serve, however, to reveal his gentle side. During his career, Nast created such immortal symbols as the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, but he will be remembered most for giving us our cherished image of Santa Claus. Fusing images created by writers and born of folktales, and especially drawing from Moore’s poem, the cartoonist turned the fourth century saint into the most delightful of characters — a huggably chubby old man, lively and merry, dressed in a red coat, with a long white beard, and a pipe in his hand. Nast’s pictures were so popular that a complete collection came out in book form in 1892. The volume’s final picture shows Santa Claus in his sleigh, flying high above snow-covered roofs, en route to his polar home, as he shouts the final line of Moore’s poem, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” <<<

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