Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Favorite Santa - Thomas Nast

I adore the classics, old school, the woodcut and pen and ink drawings that illustrators so lovingly created during the Victorian era.  There are thousands of Santa's on posters, products and storybooks, but it is the Thomas Nast Santa that I love best.  To me, nothing typifies Santa Claus better than Nast's classic illustration of that happy old elf.

Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Landau, Germany. Following the tradition of thousands that immigrated to America, young Nast, his sister, and his mother came to the United States in 1846 while his father followed four years later. Following their arrival in new York, Mrs. Nast enrolled her two children in public schools. While his sister was able to make the changes, Thomas found it difficult to adjust. In addition to not being able to speak English, he disliked school work. This continued for many years.

A neighbor made candles and crayons for a living. He would give Thomas reject crayons. As a young boy, Thomas would spend hours drawing.  He could not stand to do a minute of school work. Finally, when Nast was 12, the school master talked to his parents into pulling Thomas out of regular school and enrolling him into an art school. Three years later, at the age of 15, he had to quit art school due to financial problems. He sought employment.

It was difficult enough for a 15-year-old to get a job but it was more difficult since Thomas could not read or write. Since he was short and fat, manual labor was also out. The only skill he had to offer was his ability to draw what he saw. In those days there was a rigid apprenticeship established to obtain a job as an illustrator. One just didn't get hired for that sort of job without being an apprentice first -- except for Thomas Nast, however.

By sheer guts, Nast walked into the offices of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and asked for a job as an illustrator. Finally, tiring of not being able to get past the receptionist, one day he waited for the right moment and slipped past her and marched into the publisher's office and requested a job as an illustrator. Frank Leslie viewed the young man's request as absurd. It just wasn't done that way. In jest, Leslie gave Nast an "assignment". It was to go down to the Christopher Street Ferry house in lower Manhattan during the rush hour and draw a picture of the crowd boarding the ferry. To the publisher's surprise, Nast returned the next morning with the completed drawing. Leslie was so impressed that he hired Thomas Nast on the spot!

Nast became one of America's greatest political cartoonists and was the inspiration behind our Country's political parties mascots.

Thomas Nast is best known for his Christmas drawings. His first appeared in Harper's Weekly for Christmas of 1862 and his Christmas drawings mark the first appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today. Prior to this, Santa had passed through a series of stages beginning with a more religious-type figure.

The inspiration for how Nast's Santa should look came from Clement Moore's poem 'Twas a Night Before Christmas. Still lacking reading skills, he had his wife read to him while he prepared his drawings and engravings. On one occasion, Mrs. Nast read Clement Moore's poem to Thomas. That was all it took for inspiration.

The next 24 years saw Nast produce 76 Christmas engravings that were signed and published. Nast used Moore's poem to put it all together in visual form; a sleigh, reindeer, jolly old elf, filling the stockings hung by the chimney, and so forth.

In addition, Nast used his own imagination to expand upon the theme. He was the first to establish that Santa's home was in the North Pole. In this way, Santa didn't belong to any one country -- he became a citizen of the world. The concept of Santa having a workshop and elves to help him were also Nast's idea. Prior to his engravings, all children received gifts from Santa. Nast conceived the idea that bad children didn't get gifts from Santa. The custom of sending Santa a letter is also due to Thomas Nast.

Thomas Nast brought Christmas to a large audience through his engravings. The result of the impact that these drawings had on American's is astronomical. In Europe, Christmas was observed for centuries on December 6. By the late 1800's when Nast's Santa Claus gained popularity, Christmas Day was legally established as December 25 in all states and territories in the United States. In addition, an extended school vacation during this period became a custom. We owe much of the established traditions of Santa Claus to Nast.  Have a lovely afternoon.  Sea Witch


Jacque said...

WOW...I didn't know ANY of that!!! Thanks for sharing. You are full of all sorts of information.

Have a great week!

SharDon Exclusives said...

Thank you so very much for sharing this wonderful story! I had not ever know the details behind all of his wonderful work.
Merry Christmas to you!

Kathy-Catnip Studio said...

Great post - I had no idea! May Santa bring you everything on your list!

Michelle May-The Raspberry Rabbits said...

What a fantastic post! I love reading about people and how they have the courage to follow their dreams. Look what came about all because a boy believed in himself. Amazing.
Loved this!
Merry Christmas!
bunny hugs,