Santa and the Civil War

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By Sue Boardman & Elle Lamboy  |  Photo Courtesy of Adams County Historical Society

The Civil War had several lasting outcomes that forever changed America: the abolishment of slavery, preservation of the Union, the birth of industrialism, and Santa Claus.

Yes, you read that correctly—Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast was a German-born American cartoonist who worked for Harper’s Weekly magazine during the American Civil War. He served as staff illustrator and was best known for his political drawings, which sparked great conversation and debate. If he were around in today’s virtual age, his works would definitely reach “viral status.”

In 1862, Nast, a faithful Unionist, was charged with creating a Christmas illustration for Harper’s front page that tied together the upcoming holiday season with the ongoing war effort. However, just as writers experience the dreaded “writer’s block,” Nast developed a major case of “illustrator’s block” and was unsure of what direction to take with this assignment.

He talked it over with his sister, who was a teacher in New York City. She shared with her brother that her students really enjoyed hearing her read Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (now known as “’Twas the Night before Christmas”) during the holiday season.

Nast thrived off that inspiration and illustrated a Santa Claus that melded his political agenda with Moore’s description of Santa. His cover image revealed a bearded Santa dressed in stars and stripes, bringing Christmas gifts from his reindeer-drawn sleigh to the Union soldiers.

Inside the publication it read:

“Children, you mustn’t think that Santa Claus comes to you alone. You see him in the picture on pages 8 and 9 throwing out boxes to the soldiers, and in the one on page 1 you see what they contain. In the fore-ground you see a little drummer-boy, who, on opening his Christmas-box, beholds a jack-in-a-box spring up, much to his astonishment. His companion is so much amused at so interesting a phenomenon that he forgets his own box, and it lies in the snow, unopened, beside him. He was just going to take a bite out of that apple in his hand, but the sight of his friend’s gift has made him forget all about it. He has his other hand on a Harper’s Weekly. Santa Claus has brought lots of those for the soldiers, so that they, too, as well as you little folks, may have a peep at the Christmas number…but Santa Claus must hurry up and not stay here too long; for he has to go as far south as New Orleans, and ever so far out West; so he says, ‘G’lang!’ and away he goes through the arch like lightning, for he must give all our soldiers a Merry Christmas.”

Through this image, Nast created the first link between Santa and commercialism. Santa brings issues of Harper’s Weekly to the soldiers as one of their many Christmas gifts, giving birth to the first holiday ad.

Political satire also runs through this holiday image. If you look closely at the gift Santa is holding, you’ll see the puppet strongly resembles Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. Santa is holding the puppet by a string around his neck, insinuating that Santa is lynching Jefferson Davis.

Nast continued to bring Santa to life throughout his career at Harper’s. Ironically, he gave Santa his North Pole residency so that no one country could claim ownership of Santa—as he did to promote the Union cause during
the Civil War.

A few more pounds later, and all political agendas aside, Santa Claus
still visits America yearly, just as he did in Nast’s visualization more than 150 years ago.

Sue Boardman is a licensed battlefield guide, Cyclorama historian, author, and the leadership program director for Gettysburg Foundation. Elle Lamboy is the director of membership and philanthropic communications for Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization working with the National Park Service to enhance preservation and understanding of the heritage of Gettysburg and its national parks. Gettysburg Foundation also owns and operates Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. Visit www.gettysburgfoundation.org.

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About Author

Sue Boardman is a licensed battlefield guide, Cyclorama historian, author, and the leadership program manager for the Gettysburg Foundation. Elle Lamboy is the membership and communications manager for the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization working with the National Park Service to enhance preservation and understanding of the heritage of Gettysburg and its national parks. The Gettysburg Foundation also owns and operates the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.

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