Throwback Thursday: December 9, 2021Matt Thorenz
He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve returned that library book, so bring it back for goodness sake! This week we are highlighting this 19th century scrapbook in our collection that contains two early images of Santa Claus as depicted by the famed illustrator Thomas Nast.
Although Santa’s origins date back to Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Roman Catholic Bishop who lived in Myra, Turkey, the modern day image of Santa Claus in American culture has its roots in 19th century New York. Washington Irving, known as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, also wove the legend of Saint Nicholas into New York’s folklore. In his 1809 satirical work “The History of New York”, he describes how Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of sailors, rescues a scouting party of Dutch sailors who become marooned on Manhattan and gives them a sign to settle the island:
“the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. And he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country—and as he considered it more attentively he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared..”
Despite his fondness for Saint Nicholas, and his promotion of the festive elements of the season, Washington Irving’s description was vague at best. Then in 1822 another New Yorker, Clement Clark Moore, wrote the now famous poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas” as a Christmas gift to his children.
In the poem Moore describes Santa as:
“…dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,”
After the publication of A Visit from Saint Nicholas, many artists began depicting Santa Claus according to Moore’s description. However the image of Santa we most recognize today comes from Thomas Nast, a New York cartoonist who worked for the nationally circulated magazine Harper’s Weekly. Although Nast’s Santa is still more “elf-like” than the modern day images of Santa we know, his rotund appearance, thick beard and jolly demeanor would be standard in later illustrations, photographs, and department store appearances. More importantly, because Harper’s was a nationally syndicated publication, it meant Nast’s image of Santa became more widely known than other depictions by his contemporaries.
The two images of Santa from this late 19th century scrapbook, whose owner is unidentified, most likely appeared in Santa Claus and His Works, a compilation of Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s printed in 1866. It was later re-published in book form by McLoughlin Brothers in 1869 featuring text by George P. Webster. In both images Santa is sporting fur “from his head to his foot”, a white beard, and rosey cheeks. As he does today, he makes a point of checking his list twice to determine who has been naughty or nice, and keeps an eye on children from his home in the North Pole. Although his image has changed over the years, the folklore and mythology of Santa as we know him has remains timeless!
Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Chicago: W.B. Conkey Company, n.d.
Martindale, Linda Ann. “Christmas.” In St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2nd ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, 592-594. Vol. 1. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 2013. Gale eBooks (accessed December 9, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2735800539/GVRL?u=nysl_se_moffat&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=f6d20a2a.
“Moore, Clement Clarke.” In Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., edited by Lisa Kumar, 250-252. Vol. 37. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2017. Gale eBooks (accessed December 9, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3656400123/GVRL?u=nysl_se_moffat&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=4f4519e3.
Palmer, Alex. “10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus.” Mental Floss, December 25, 2015. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/72496/10-surprising-early-versions-santa-claus.
“St. Nicholas.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 20, Gale, 2004, pp. 284-285. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3404707651/GVRL?u=nysl_se_moffat&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=5483c7bc. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021.