December 13, 2016

A History Buff's Christmas Tidbits from the Civil War

“Santa Claus in Camp”
Harper’s Weekly (January 3,1863)
The bearded, plump image of Santa Claus we recognize today was created during the American Civil War by Thomas Nast. At the time, most depictions of Santa Claus showed jolly St. Nick as a tall, thin man. Nast, immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for Harper's Weekly. This first Santa Claus appeared as a part of a large illustration titled "Santa Claus in Camp". This Santa was a man dressed up handing out gifts to Union soldiers. Nast, known as the father of the American Cartoon also first showed the GOP as an elephant, and the Democratic Party as a donkey, symbols that both parties (and cartoonists) use to this day.

Based on the Thomas Nast Santa Claus from Harper's Weekly
Ken Osen designed this whimsical set for W. Britains in 2015.
Hand colored wood engraving Santa in Camp
“Christmas Eve”
Harper’s Weekly (January 1863)
Nast who is widely credited with having created the look of Santa Claus as we know him today. was inspired by Clement Moore’s description of the “jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka The Night Before Christmas, Nast first depicted Santa in the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The cover was a scene captioned “Santa Claus in Camp” in which Saint Nick brings toys and good cheer to Union soldiers. It seems that Santa, much like Nast himself who was a staunch Republican and abolitionist, had picked a side in the Civil War, and he wasn’t at all subtle about it.

Santa’s blue (of course) coat has white stars on it and his pants have red and white stripes, similar to garb donned by other patriotic icons drawn by Nast like Columbia and Uncle Sam. He has delivered parcels to the soldiers. One finds a sock inside, doubtless a welcome gift in the bleak midwinter after the devastating loss at Fredericksburg which saw more than 12,000 of his comrades killed, wounded or taken captive. A drummer boy in the foreground stares with wide-eyed surprise at the jack-in-the-box that leapt out of his present. But it’s the toy Santa is holding that is most remarkable. Here’s Harper’s explanation of it: Santa Claus is entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis’ future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.

Inside the same issue was a more sentimental approach to enlisting Santa in the Union cause. Nast’s two-page cartoon entitled “Christmas Eve” frames two Christmas scenes: a mother looking out the window praying while her two children sleep, and a lonely soldier by a campfire, presumably her husband, looking at a picture of his wife and children. Below them are vignettes of war and fresh graves. Above them in the upper left corner of the drawing, Santa Claus is shown climbing down a chimney; in the upper right, he is shown distributing gifts as he rides a sleigh being pulled by reindeer. 

“Christmas Eve”
Harper’s Weekly (December 1863)
The same family is depicted the following Christmas in the December 26, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly. In “Christmas 1863,” the couple is seen happily reunited as the husband returns home on furlough. In a panel to the left, Santa Claus is seen stepping from the fireplace with a sack on his back as the children sleep soundly on Christmas Eve.

By Christmas of 1865, Santa’s wartime support of the Union had softened from stringing up effigy Jefferson Davis with his own hands to presiding over a Christmas pageant starring Ulysses S. Grant as the giant killer from Jack and the Beanstalk. Sure, the decapitated heads of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood and Richard Ewell are at Grant’s feet, but it’s just metaphoric playacting and anyway Santa’s involvement is restricted to a wink and an avuncular smile, possibly a touch on the gloating side.

Christmas Boxes in Camp by  by Winslow Homer Harpers Weekly 1862

Rare Example of a Christmas Card Issued During the American Civil War C,1860s.
MTSC Collection
"A Christmas Dinner. A scene from the outer picket line." by Edwin Forbes 1876

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