Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Right Jolly Old Elf

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1963

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

Though he called him St Nicholas, Clement C. Moore's most famous and beloved poem essentially invented the modern Santa Claus in 1823. The legend of a saint became the myth of a "jolly old elf" who drove a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and could magically pop up and down family chimneys whether they were in a tenement in New York or a little house on the prairie.

What Moore described in words, illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast manifested in pen and ink for Harper's Weekly in 1863.

Visiting the Camp by Thomas Nast, 1863
 America was at war. Nast supported the Union. His political cartoons and illustrations reflected his abolitionist beliefs. President Lincoln said of him: "Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce."

It makes sense that Lincoln would go to Nast for an illustration of Santa Claus visiting the Union soldiers - a clever piece of Yankee propaganda.

Nast continued to refine his vision of Santa Claus over the years. By 1881, he had image that would be as easily recognized by children today as those who saw his art when it was first published.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1881

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

Other artists, particularly Norman Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom, would refine Santa's image, but Clement C. Moore and Thomas Nast defined it.


Roseanne Dowell said...

Very interesting, Ginger. Thanks for sharing.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Alison, I didn't realize Moore was where we get our version of Santa, but I understand that now. I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SANTA CLAUS by Jeff Guinn and enjoyed that. Also enjoyed your appearance on Susan Horsnell's blog.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Moore pretty much describes St Nick as we see him today, but smaller - a tiny elf with eight tiny reindeer.

I'm going to continue this theme in December on my own blog, taking the evolution of Santa into the 20th Century - particularly the World Wars.

Anonymous said...

I love finding little bits and pieces of history like this. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Melodie Campbell said...

Love this History Byte! Thanks for posting, Alison.

Susan Horsnell said...

What a great post. Thanks Alison.