Yes, Billy, There Is a Santa Claus. No, Johnny, He Isn’t Going to Run the Blockade

We know that the Thanksgiving Presidential Turkey Pardon is a product of the American Civil War, as is the Proclamation that the fourth Thursday in November should be the official date for the holiday, but Santa Claus? In short, yes!

Santa’s first official appearance was in Clement Moore’s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published in 1823. His image included a sleigh pulled by reindeer, a beard, and a weight problem. Forty years later, he reemerged from the pen of Thomas Nast, one of the illustrators for Harper’s Weekly, looking very much like the Santa we think of today.

There are several theories about the origin of Nast’s Santa Claus for the January 3, 1863, cover of Harper’s. Some people even think this was the first appearance of Nast’s “jolly old elf.” One claim is that President Lincoln asked Nast to create a drawing showing Santa visiting a Union camp. The Union winter of 1862 is often said to be Lincoln’s “Valley Forge,” with so many hardships faced by the Army of the Potomac both in camp and on the battleground. Lincoln felt such a drawing might both boost the morale in the North and erode that of the South. Proponents of this theory claim that the drawing accomplished both goals.

Kevin Rawlings, probably the best known impersonator of Nast’s Santa, tells a different tale. He claims that Nast had a deadline at Harper’s Weekly, compounded by the fact that Fletcher Harper, the editor of Harper’s, asked the artist to create a special illustration showing some sort of link between the coming Christmas celebrations and the current war effort. Nast faced a case of “illustrator’s block,” trying to reconcile two such opposing ideas in one drawing.

Kevin Rawlings as Santa Claus

Thomas Nast’s school teacher sister, Bertha, had come to visit him for the holidays. The two began reminiscing about their own childhood celebrations in their native Germany. Bertha also mentioned that she and her students enjoyed reading the above-mentioned “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” to get into the holiday spirit. Nast, finally inspired, worked through the night, and delivered the finished illustration, “Santa Claus In Camp,” to his editor the next morning.

On January 3, 1963, the New Year’s edition of Harper’s hit the streets, showing a “wondrous holiday sight!” Santa’s image was patriotic and warlike! He wears red and white striped pants, and a blue jacket with stars. The presents he has brought to the camp in his reindeer-drawn sleigh are perfect for a working soldier. The man to the left has received a new pair of socks, the drummer boys have some new toys, and many of the men seem to have gotten a box from home.

Note, please, the special gift in Santa’s hand! It is a jumping jack toy . . . of Jeff Davis . . . and the string around ol’ Jeff’s neck? Well, it looks suspiciously like Davis is being lynched–a classic Thomas Nast touch.

Inside the pages of Harper’s Weekly was an article entitled “Santa Claus Among Our Soldiers.” “Children, you mustn’t think that Santa Claus comes to you alone,“ cautions the article. With brilliant, blatant product placement, the article goes on to tell how Santa even remembered to bring copies of Harper’s Weekly for the soldiers, “ . . . so that they, as well as you little folks, may have a peep at the Christmas number.”

Cheerful and encouraging as the January 3 Santa is, it was not Nast’s first Christmas image for Harper’s that season. The one he drew for December 24, 1862, was much more dreary than those usually associated with the holiday. It was titled “Christmas Eve, 1862,” and was a two-panel piece. I think this image is the one Nast intended for Christmas.
In Nast’s Christmas Eve diptych, the image on the left is a brave Union wife and mother, looking out the window at the moon shining on the deep snows, her children in bed behind her. Her hands are clasped in prayers of grief and love for her missing husband. Santa appears on a rooftop in the upper left, and a winter encampment is shown in the lower left.
On the right is her war-weary soldier husband, taking a short break from guard duty to look at pictures of his family, and to miss them on a cold Christmas Eve. In the upper right, Santa again appears, driving through a quiet Union camp. The lower right pays homage to those sailors and marines who were also missing their families during the War.
The top center of the panel shows the gate to a prison, remembering the Union men held in captivity, although there were still prisoner exchanges at this time. Poignantly, the bottom center shows Civil War graves. The Christmas hopes and prayers of the families of those soldiers will, sadly, not be answered. Santa is included in the overall image, but the little children, stockings hung on the bedstead, would plainly rather have their father back home than an orange and a couple of peppermint sticks.

Kevin Rawlings as Santa Claus.

However, just a little over a week later, Thomas Nast introduced the North to a new, improved Santa Claus, replete with gifts, an artillery salute, a greased pig contest, and a lovely arch of greenery and a star announcing “Welcome Santa Claus.” The Stars and Stripes waves proudly overhead. Perhaps this is the politically correct image–Santa Claus visiting a happy, prosperous Union Army in a land of plenty, but I suspect that the sadness of the first image is much closer to the truth of that particular Christmas.

Recommended Reading:

We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War, by Kevin Rawlings

Our Simple Gifts: Civil War Christmas Tales, by Owen Parry.

Visit Meg’s Blog.

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