Political cartoonist Thomas Nast has a strong influence on how people see Santa Claus today. Here, Santa is pictured in his 1881 drawing Merry Old Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast: Birth of a Holiday Icon, and More

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Political cartoonist Thomas Nast has a strong influence on how people see Santa Claus today. Here, Santa is pictured in his 1881 drawing Merry Old Santa Claus.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast influenced how we see Santa Claus today. Here, Santa is pictured in Nast’s 1881 drawing Merry Old Santa Claus.

A white beard. Rosy cheeks. A sack full of toys.

It can only be Santa Claus.

As Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, Santa’s face is a common sight online, on television, and in stores. However, the legendary patron of Christmas didn’t always look the same way. Our modern image of Santa is due largely to the work of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Between 1863 and 1886, Nast published over 30 depictions of Santa Claus.

A Cartoonist’s Career

Thomas Nast heard legends of mysterious gift bringers as a boy in Germany, where he was born in 1840. After his family moved to the United States in the late 1840s, the teenage Nast began art studies in 1854.

Young Nast was exceptionally talented. When he was only 15 years old, he was hired as an artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The work was challenging. Before photography, the only way readers could see what distant places or foreign leaders looked like was through artists’ drawings. Eventually, Nast landed a job at the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly, where he worked from 1862 to 1886 .

During the American Civil War, Nast strongly supported the Union. His 1864 drawing Compromise with the South reflected his political beliefs. It also made him famous. The image was used in President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Lincoln is said to have called Nast his “best recruiting general.”

Nast’s drawings played a role in helping bring about the downfall of the dishonest New York City politician William M. Tweed. Nicknamed “Boss Tweed,” he unfairly influenced political appointments and legislation. Instead of serving the citizens of New York, Tweed used his power position to steal millions of dollars from the city. While writers attacked Tweed with words, Nast attacked with pictures.

Nast depicted Tweed as a dishonest criminal. His work was so effective that even Tweed took notice, and is reported to have said that while people might not read newspaper articles, “They can see the pictures.” He was right. After being convicted for his crimes, Tweed escaped from jail in 1876 and fled to Spain. He was caught because he was recognized by a Spanish customs official who couldn’t read a word of English but recognized Tweed’s face from the drawings Nast had made.

A New Picture of a Holiday

Christmas in early America was unlike the holiday people celebrate today. It was usually associated with loud and rowdy outdoor parties. However, in the early 1800s, writers and artists tried to turn Christmas into a family holiday centered around the figure of St. Nicholas.

Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York depicted St. Nicholas piloting a flying wagon, delivering presents to children. In 1821, an anonymous poem called The Children’s Friend pictured St. Nicholas in fur robes, driving a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer. An 1822 poem by poet Clement Clarke Moore had an even larger effect on how we view Santa. In A Visit from St. Nicholas, better known today by its first line, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa is a plump and jolly man who drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.

Nast’s first Santa drawing appeared  in 1863 during the American Civil War, and it showed Santa giving presents to Union soldiers at a military camp. His most influential drawing, however, is Santa Claus and His Works, which appeared in Harper’s in 1866. in Nast’s portrayal of Santa, Santa uses a telescope to see if children have been naughty or nice. He builds toys by hand, instead of in one of the factories that were becoming more common at the time. He even decorates a Christmas tree, a tradition from Nash’s German heritage.

Because of his drawings for Harper’s and the fact that in the 1870s and 1880s Christmas card merchants frequently used Nast’s work, his portrait of Santa is still recognizable to us today.

Thomas Nast as seen in a portrait by photographer Matthew Brady.

Thomas Nast as seen in a portrait by photographer Matthew Brady

Reindeer, Donkeys, and Elephants

Thomas Nast made another important contribution to American culture when he popularized the use of a donkey as a symbol for the Democratic Party and an elephant for the Republican Party.

The donkey first appeared as a Democratic symbol in Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential campaign. When Jackson’s opponents taunted him by calling him a “jackass,” the amused Jackson started using a picture of a donkey on his campaign posters. Nast revived this image more than 30 years later. He used the image for the first time in his 1870 cartoon A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion. The Northern Democrats were nicknamed Copperheads. In the cartoon, Nast has the word “Copperheads” written on the donkey. Nast, a Republican, was critical of the way the Democrats were dealing with Edwin Stanton, the Republican who was Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

The Republican Party formed in 1854, and in 1860 Abraham Lincoln was the first member of the party to become president. Images of elephants began to be used during the Civil War because soldiers sometimes used the expression “seeing the elephant” to mean experiencing a battle.

The elephant began to take hold as the Republican symbol when Nast used it in an 1874 cartoon The Third-Term Panic. When President Ulysses S. Grant was considering running for a third term, many were critical. However, the pro-Republican Nast drew an elephant to illustrate the strength of the Republican Party. Nast continued to use the elephant as a Republican symbol. Because of his skill and popularity, other artists starting using an elephant to symbolize the Republican Party. 

Additional Resources

See how depictions of Santa Claus have changed over time The Guardian and National Geographic.

Read more about Thomas Nast at the New York Times and the Ohio State University Bill Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. See more of his cartoons at Thomasnastcartoons.com.

Learn more about the symbols used by the Democratic and Republican parties at History.com.

Images and Sources

Santa Claus Cartoon Photo: Bill Casselman
Santa Claus Cartoon Photo License: Public Domain

Thomas Nast Photo: Library of Congress
Pipeline Protest Photo License: Public Domain