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The artist behind the modern day image of Santa Claus

(WVUE) -

Cartoonist Thomas Nast, more than any other single individual, seems responsible for our modern day image of Santa Claus as a fat, bearded elf.

Thomas Nast's iconic 1881 image of Santa Claus

Prior to Nast's drawings, Saint Nicolas and later Santa Claus, had been drawn as a tall, thin man.

Beginning in the 1860s, at the height of the Civil War, Nast began drawing a series of Christmas cartoons for Harper's Weekly.

One of the earliest cartoons in the set features Santa with Union soldiers gathered around him.

The First Santa (Harper's Weekly)

The Christmas 1862 Harper's Weekly, postdated January 3, 1863, shows a woman in a circle, kneeling at the foot of a bed and praying for her husband's safety.

The right side of the picture depicts a soldier alone and looking at pictures of his family.

"Christmas Eve" 1862 by Thomas Nast

A Christmas Homecoming

The following year, Harper's Weekly and Nast followed up with a drawing showing a family welcoming home a soldier on furlough. 

Santa is seen on the left side of the picture, peering over children in their bed on Christmas Eve.

A photograph of Thomas Nast (Public Domain)

Certainly, Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, or Saint Nicholas, had been illustrated in many forms long before Nast.  However, it is his 1881 drawing of Santa that, more than any other, seems to define the image of Santa Claus.

While Nast brought us the image of the jolly old elf, complete with reindeer and sleigh, publicdomainreview points out the red suit was yet to be set as Sana's wardrobe of choice.

Nast, born in Germany on September 27, 1840, came to the United States with his family at the age of 6.  He dropped out of high school at age 15 to support his family as an illustrator and was already a famous caricaturist in his early 20s.  

The Father of Modern Political Cartoonists

Widely regarded as the father of modern political cartoons, Nast made the New York political boss William Tweed a frequent target.

Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast

Nast also established the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party.  While the donkey had been used before, first at the time of Andrew Jackson's presidency, historians credit Nast with popularizing the symbol in an 1874 cartoon.  The Smithsonian points out the drawing, during the mid-term elections, actually showed a donkey in lion's clothing scaring other animals.

Nast died of Yellow Fever on December 7, 1902 while serving as the U.S. Consul General to Ecuador.

Self caricature by Thomas Nast (Library of Congress)

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