The Artist Who Helped Create a Very American Santa Claus

Thomas Nast, “Santa Claus and Little Bo Peep (published in Harper’s Young People)” (1879), relief print and electrotype

These days, Santa sightings typically take place in abandoned Midwestern malls, agoraphobia-inducing holiday markets, hotel lobbies, and other consumerist nightmares. But in 1863, right in the thick of the Civil War months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the best chances of catching a Santa sighting would have been behind Union lines — or so posited abolitionist cartoonist Thomas Nast in his first portrayal of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1863.

Nast is well-known for his depictions of “Boss Tweed” and the corrupt machinations of Tammany Hall, his solidification of Uncle Sam as the go-to symbol of the US government, and his popularization of the donkey and the elephant as visual stand-ins for the Democratic and Republican parties. 

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