The modern-day image of Santa Claus, icon of peace and goodwill, was actually forged during America’s darkest days when it appeared in a Civil War illustration, and it wasn’t the last time that jolly St. Nick was enlisted to support wartime efforts on the home front.
Although “peace on earth” may never have seemed more elusive than during the Civil War, America’s bloodiest years actually produced our popular image of Santa Claus. Clement Clarke Moore had injected Santa into the American psyche with his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”), but it was four decades later when the modern-day figure of St. Nick first dripped off the pen of noted illustrator Thomas Nast.
The political satirist, who later gained fame parodying both political parties by drawing an elephant as a symbol for Republicans and a donkey for Democrats, joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, one of Civil War America’s most widely read periodicals, in the summer of 1862. A fervent supporter of the Union cause, Nast had considerable experience illustrating Abraham Lincoln, but another bearded figure, Santa Claus, was his subject for the cover of the magazine’s January 3, 1863, issue.
Nast, who had emigrated from Germany with his family when he was six years old, tapped his boyhood memories of St. Nicholas to sketch a Santa with a reindeer-drawn sleigh, long white beard and fur-lined hat and coat visiting a Union army camp. Nast’s Santa isn’t decked out in red, however, but a star-spangled outfit featuring red-and-white striped pants and a blue jacket with white stars. Nast enhances the patriotic setting by drawing soldiers firing an artillery salute, the Stars and Stripes flapping proudly in the breeze and a triumphal arch decorated with evergreens that says, “Welcome Santa Claus.”
Sitting atop his sleigh, Santa hands out gifts that include stockings and meerschaum pipes and a jack-in-the-box for a pair of young drummer boys who sit playing in the snow. Santa is clearly not wishing goodwill to all, however, for in his hands is a dancing puppet of Confederate president Jefferson Davis with a string tied around his neck that makes it appear as if he is being lynched by St. Nick. “Santa Claus is entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis’s future,” expounded Harper’s Weekly. “He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.”
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