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Is Santa Claus Really American?

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3. Thomas Nast and Santa Claus

Many aspects of the American Christmas celebration were imported from Europe, and Germany in particuar. The Dutch may have given him his English name, but Santa Claus owes most of his current image to an award-winning German-American cartoonist.

Thomas Nast was born in Landau in der Pfalz (between Karlsruhe and Kaiserslautern) on Sept. 27, 1840. When he was six years old, he arrived in New York City with his mother. (His father arrived four years later.) After art studies there, Nast became an illustrator for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper at the age of 15. By the time he was 19, he was working at Harper's Weekly and he later traveled to Europe on assignment for other publications (and paid a visit to his hometown in Germany). Soon he was a famous political cartoonist.

Nast 1860s
One of Nast's 1860s
Santa Claus images.

Today Nast is best remembered for his biting cartoons aimed at "Boss Tweed" and as the creator of several well-known U.S. icons: Uncle Sam, the Democratic donkey, and the Republican elephant. Less well known is Nast's contribution to the image of Santa Claus.

Jolly Old Saint Nick
Many people helped create the Santa Claus we know today. In many ways St. Nick is quite international. After all, he is a man without a country, living at the North Pole (an idea that comes from a poem by George P. Webster in a book of Nast's Santa illustrations published in 1869), and his name is a corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas. Today Santa is a familar figure around the world, even in unexpected places like Japan.

When Nast published a series of drawings of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly each year from 1863 (in the midst of the Civil War) to 1866, he helped create the kinder, more fatherly, plumper Santa we know today. His drawings show influences of the bearded, fur-cloaked, pipe-smoking Pelznickel of Nast's Palatinate homeland. Later color illustrations by Nast (see below) are even closer to today's Santa Claus image, showing him as a toy maker. Here are some more Santa history highlights...

Contributors to the Santa Image and Legend:

Washington Irving - 1812
Irving, under the name "Diedrich Knickerbocker," publishes a revised edition of his satirical history of New York in which Santa "rides over the tops of trees" in a horse-drawn wagon. He is described as a "jolly Dutchman" who smokes a clay pipe.

Clement Clarke Moore - 1822
Moore publishes his poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "The Night Before Christmas." The poem is the first mention of a sleigh powered by "eight tiny reindeer" and mentioning their names. It describes Santa as jolly and rotund.

Nast 1890
Nast's later 1890 color
version of Saint Nick.

Thomas Nast - 1863
Harper's Weekly publishes the first in a series of Nast's Santa illustrations on January 3. One drawing shows Santa distributing gifts to Civil War soldiers from his sleigh.

Thomas Nast - 1866
Harper's Weekly publishes the fourth and last installment of Nast's Santa drawings, now in color (with Santa in red).

Thomas Nast - 1890
Nast publishes a book entitled "Christmas Drawings for All Mankind" with his latest Santa illustrations including Christmas symbols from around the world. Nast drew Santa walking on rooftops and going down chimneys.

Haddon Sundblom - 1931
Sundblom creates a series of Santa Claus ads for Coca-Cola. His Santa image is very close to Nast's, updating it with a slightly more modern look. The popular magazine and billboard ads help to standardize Santa's grandfatherly features. But, as we can see by this timeline, the legend that Coca-Cola created the Santa image is not true.

Montgomery Ward's - 1939
As part of a Christmas ad campaign, Ward's introduces "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The song of the same name eventually becomes a worldwide hit.

Thomas Nast - 1902
Six months after Teddy Roosevelt sends him to Quayaquil, Ecuador as American ambassador, Thomas Nast dies of Yellow Fever on December 7, one day after St. Nicholas Day (Nikolaustag).

NEXT > Nikolaus-Lexikon

GAME > German Christmas Word Search

NIKOLAUS > Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

WEB > Der Vater des Weihnachtmanns
"Der politische Karikaturist Thomas Nast erfand 1890 den weltbekannten 'Santa Claus'" - von Oliver Bentz und der Wiener Zeitung.
WEB > Santa Claus aus der Pfalz - Die Zeit

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Christmas graphics courtesy Brigitte Haag

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An annotated glossary of all the German names for Santa and his helpers.

Advent and Christmas
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A German Christmas
Our Christmas start page has links to all the Christmas pages at this site.

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