Cartoonist Nast Drew One Of First Santa Claus Images In A Time Of Political Turmoil, A Holiday Hero, Frank Reeves, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 26, 2011.
By Christmas 1862, more than 200,000 Union soldiers and sailors had been killed, wounded, died of disease or gone missing since the Civil War began 20 months earlier. So staggering were the casualties on both sides that the United States had become, in the words of one modern historian, a "republic of suffering." It was against this background of death and despair that Harper's Weekly -- then one of the country's leading illustrated newspapers -- published its annual Christmas issue, dated Jan. 3, 1863. The magazine had well more than 150,000 subscribers who paid $2.50 a year for its fare of news articles, short stories by authors such as Dickens, and its wood engravings of the war.
To illustrate the cover of its holiday issue, Harper's selected Thomas Nast, a 22-year-old artist who had been on the magazine's payroll for only a few months. He was one of a cadre of artists, including Winslow Homer, hired by Harper's to cover the war. For Nast, it was the beginning of a 25-year career with Harper's that would see him rise to a level of fame and fortune such as no other American cartoonist before him had ever achieved, said V.C. Rogers, a North Carolina-based freelance illustrator and unofficial historian of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
Harper's would be the forum through which Nast would excoriate Southern sympathizers, the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt politicians and, perhaps most regrettably to many today, Irish immigrants and their Catholic faith. Even though he opposed slavery and would support the cause of black rights during Reconstruction, his depictions of African-Americans have often been criticized as racist.
During his political crusades, he created some of the nation's most enduring caricatures and symbols, such as the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party. Nast's drawing of a fat man, with an ample paunch and a money bag for a head, would become synonymous with the corrupt politician and, later, the greedy plutocrat. He would popularize the use of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party, although he wasn't the first cartoonists to do so, Mr. Rogers said.
And, yes, Virginia, it is to Nast that we owe our modern conception of Santa Claus -- a composite drawn from German folklore and "St. Nick" in Clement Moore's " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." The jolly old elf, sitting in his reindeer-drawn sleigh, would make one of his first public debuts on the Harper's cover for Jan. 3, 1863. "Nast was with only slight exaggeration the father of us all," Mr. Rogers said, referring to the generations of American political and editorial cartoonists who have followed in his wake.
In the 1860s, Nast was a staunch Union man. Family lore has it that he considered joining the Union army after President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. But family and friends convinced the young man that he could do more to support the Union cause by using his paint brushes, pens and sketch books than by carrying a rifle. Their confidence in him was amply rewarded by the numerous sketches he drew from life about the war and the Union army. So effective were Nast's illustrations, which became the basis of some of Harper's most popular wood engravings, that Lincoln reportedly said Nast "is our best recruiting poster."
One of Nast's early masterpieces was "Christmas in Camp," the wood engraving for the cover of Harper's Jan. 3, 1863, issue. In the voice of a Victorian father, the editors provided an explanation of the drawing for their young readers: "Children, you mustn't think that Santa Claus comes to you alone." Soldiers bundled against the cold stand in the snow as they welcome Santa. "See how the soldiers have decorated their encampment in honor of the day. They have erected a triumphal arch to show how welcome [Santa] is," the editorial note continues.
Some of the men eagerly open the gifts Santa has brought them. One soldier pulls out a sock -- a Christmas stocking containing holiday goodies. In the foreground, a youngster, described as a drummer-boy, plays with a jack-in-a-box while his comrade looks on. Drummer-boys were popular subjects with Civil-War era artists. The boys in Nast's drawing look to be eight or nine years old. In reality, drummer boys were usually older. Children under 16 would probably not have lasted very long in an Army camp. The threat of disease and the rigors of infantry life would have killed them off quickly, said Michael Kraus, historian and curator at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland. (The museum recently acquired original editions of Harper's, many of which contain Nast's illustrations.)
In the background (get your magnifying glasses at this point), soldiers "are playing football, getting a fine appetite for their Christmas dinner which is cooking on the fire." Despite the attempt by Nast and his editors to invoke holiday cheer, the grim business of war is an ever-present reality even in this fanciful scene. Nast's Santa was hardly a neutral figure in the conflict that was tearing the country apart. This Santa, wearing a star-spangled jacket and striped pants, is a staunch Union man like Nast himself. He wouldn't have been welcome around a Confederate campfire.
On first glance, Santa appears to be playing with a puppet for the innocent amusement of the men. Instead, as the edtiors tell us, Santa "is entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis's future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly around his neck and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate." Jefferson Davis was, of course, the hated president of the Confederacy, often depicted in Harper's and other Northern newspapers as a rat.
The impact of the war did not fall on soldiers and sailors alone but also on their families at home. At war's end, many women and children would be widows and orphans. Then, as now, military families felt the grief of separation most acutely at Christmas. Nast tapped into this feeling in a double-page wood engraving entitled "Christmas Eve." It, too, appeared in Harper's Jan. 3, 1863, edition.
On the left panel, children are shown asleep in their bed while their mother kneels in prayer. We can imagine she is thinking about her soldier-husband at an Army camp far away. On the right panel, a soldier sits, bayonet in hand, while reading a letter from home. A small fire burns beside him to keep him warm. Nast surrounded these larger panels with contrasting scenes of holiday joy and the business of war. In the foreground, he drew a picture of four soldiers' graves. Even amid holiday joy, the war dead were not to be forgotten. "Letters from every corner of the Union poured into Harper's weekly with messages of thanks for that inspired picture," Thomas Nast St. Hill, the illustrator's grandson, wrote in an account that was published in 1971 of the elder Nast's Christmas illustrations.
"A colonel wrote the weekly to say that he had received his copy of the magazine and had unfolded it by the light of his campfire," St. Hill continued. " He was so touched by Nast's drawing that tears had fallen on the page. 'It was only a picture,' he wrote, 'but I couldn't help it.' " For the rest of his career, Nast would continue making pictures that touched the emotions of his audience. In the years immediately after the Civil War, he would play a pivotal role in bringing down New York City's corrupt Democratic political machine headed by William M. Tweed, the infamous "Boss Tweed." "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read," the boss reportedly said. "But they can't help seeing those damned pictures."
Nast died in 1902 of yellow fever while serving as a U.S. consul in Ecuador. But his place was already secure in the pantheon of political cartoonists. "We constantly refer back to Thomas Nast. We all take a piece of his legacy," said Rob Rogers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial cartoonist. "His main influence on us has been the idea that a cartoonist could use his art to combat evil."
Text and Image Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette