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Thomas Nast – The man who invented Santa Claus

Goran Blazeski

Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840, in Landau, Germany. In 1946, when Thomas was 6 years old, his mother, Appolonia, brought him and his sister to the United States, settling in New York City. His father, Joseph Thomas Nast, joined them in 1849 at the end of his enlistment.

Thomas Nast attended school in New York City. He was a poor student, but even from an early age, Nast showed an interest in drawing. When he was about 13-years-old he dropped out of regular school and next year he studied art with Theodore Kaufmann. He then studied for a time at the National Academy of Design and when he was about 15-years-old he started working as a draftsman for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Thomas H. Nast, Photograped by Sarony, Union Square, N.Y.

Thomas H. Nast, Photograped by Sarony, Union Square, N.Y.

In 1859 he moved to the New York Illustrated News and in 1860 he was sent to England providing coverage of a major prizefight and he also went to Italy to provide coverage of Garibaldi’s campaigns in Italy. Nast arrived back in New York in 1861 and in September he married Sarah Edwards. They had five children, Julia, Thomas, Jr., Edith, Mabel, and Cyril.

In 1862 he joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly where he focused his efforts on political cartoons. Thomas Nast was a Radical Republican who favored abolition and opposed segregation. He supported Abraham Lincoln and President Abraham Lincoln described Nast as the “best recruiting sergeant” for the Union cause since his sketches inspired readers to support the war effort.

One of the most inspiring pictures was “Christmas Eve,” a double-circle picture that shows a soldier’s wife praying for the safety of her husband and in the next circle appears soldier seated by a campfire, looking at photographs of his family. In the right corner of the drawing Santa Claus is shown riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And in the left corner he is shown climbing down a chimney.

A husband and wife separated by the war (Nast, 1862)

A husband and wife separated by the war (Nast, 1862)

 

Thomas Nast is the creator of the still-popular images of the Democratic Party represented by a donkey and the Republican Party represented by an elephant. He was also the man who invented Santa Claus. During Christmas in 1862 Nast first drew Santa Claus but the drawings first appeared on the cover of the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly, and shows Santa Claus visiting a Civil War Camp.

Santa Claus distributes gifts to Union troops in Nast's first Santa Claus cartoon, (1863)

Santa Claus distributes gifts to Union troops in Nast’s first Santa Claus cartoon, (1863)

In the past Santa Claus was presented in various ways but Nast conceived and introduced our modern image of Santa Claus. For the next 30 years Nast continued to draw Santa changing the color of his coat from tan to the red he’s known for today. His image of Santa Claus was the inspiration for the Coca Cola company’s modern Santa Claus.

As years passed by Nast was adding details to the story of Santa’s life through his illustrations. It is believed that the story about Santa Claus living at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation.

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, along with Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas", helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, along with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

His most famous drawing of Santa Claus appeared in the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The drawing became so popular that is still widely reproduced today.

In 1886 Nast stopped working for Harper’s Weekly and faced hard times in the next 6 years. He was appointed as U.S. counsel general for Ecuador by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Unfortunately he contracted yellow fever in Ecuador and died on December 7, 1902.

A classic American image of Santa Claus.

A classic American image of Santa Claus.

Here is another “jolly” Christmas story from us: John Callcott Horsley: the designer of the first Christmas card

Thomas Nast is considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon” and the man who conceived and introduced our modern image of Santa Claus.