The American History of Santa Claus

Before the Civil War holidays weren’t like they are now. Different regions celebrated different holidays, following local ethnic and regional traditions. There were religious holidays, there were sundry fall and spring festivals. But just as every city, village, and town kept its own standard of time, most places had different holidays.[1. This post was originally going to be given as a talk at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, VA. It got canceled by a snowstorm and so I’ve turned it into a blog post–which is what I would have done anyway.]

Instead of specific national calendar dates, people took holidays around weddings, which might last for days, or around horse races, or around seasonal events, like hunting season or fish runs. Early factory managers complained all the time about workers all taking off for a hunting party or a wedding.[1. I have to cite myself on this: chapter one of Keeping Watch. Also E. P. Thompson’s famous essay “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.”]

The closest things to a national holiday were the Fourth of July and Election Day. Both involved getting in the streets and asserting or clamoring for one’s rights. And drinking. Here’s a famous illustration, George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election, 1852. No one is working, except the black man pouring punch, and some gamblers, and some political operatives who try to bribe/persuade: drink has incapacitated several otherwise worthy citizens. Click on the image to see a larger version.

On the fourth of July, respectable citizens often got out of  town–along with drinking, the holiday involved elaborate public parades, loud speeches, and political demands accompanied by the discharge of firearms.

“Happy the citizen of New York who rose on the morning of the 5th of July with a whole akin and unbroken bones,” wrote Elisha Harris in 1860: “Indeed, never did the Roman Saturnalia present scenes so dangerous to life, as did the streets of New York on the Fourth of July.”[1.  American Medical Times, July 14 1860.]

They were public, political holidays, threatening to the genteel: they were about the meaning and extent of citizenship and rights, declaimed in public.

Even non-political holidays carried an edge of violence: here’s Thomas Nast’s account of St. Patrick’s day, 1867. If the Irish marched their opponents turned out to meet them, and mayhem resulted

Middle class American worried about both the potential for violence and the public assertion of rights. They wanted an alternative, a private, safe alternative.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, a monthly magazine, often gets credit for inventing the idea of Thanksgiving day. She proposed:

that the LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY Of NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people. Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY of our nation, when the noise and tumult of wordliness may be exchanged for the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart. This truly American Festival falls, this year on the twenty fifth day of this month… These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories sit down together to the “feast of fat things”

Notice how she emphasizes the nation, and the states, and the flag and national harmony: it’s about the nation, but it’s about the nation going indoors and being grateful, not stalking the streets proclaiming its rights.

Christmas assumes its modern public form in this context–taming the turbulent public streets, and replacing political demands with sentimental gratitude.

Everybody knows The Night Before Christmas, 1823. St. Nick has familiar accessories–fur suit, sack, belly, reindeer by name, white beard. Set in a single house, maybe a farm; it’s entirely private and internal. Jesus is entirely absent. It’s nothing like the way Americans actually experienced Christmas at the time. According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent history of the subject, Christmas was either pagan and roisterous or mostly ignored. There was a religious holiday, the birth of Christ, and the was a winter festival involving magical beings.

Consider Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, popular then and now: not a single mention of Santa Claus or St Nick, or Jesus or Christ. It’s set in the city, in the world of crowds and commerce; its concerns are urban concerns. There are spirits, but no deity. Poverty, labor, the moral obligation of wealth: Dickens used Christmas to make a political point, to soften the edges of ruthless capitalism. People loved his story because it dramatized rebuilding human bonds shattered by commerce.

In the nineteenth century Christmas was remade: the religious holiday, the pagan festival and the reformer’s national, internal, domestic holiday came together.

Harper’s Weekly depicted Christmas every year. The leading magazine in America, lavishly illustrated,  it covered politics and current events and general news. In 1860, Santa Claus is present, but peripheral: family takes center stage, and politics has not been invited; nor has Jesus. Santa has an odd peaked cap and a dark beard, and looks too young. (Click on any of the images below for a larger version.)

That same issue included this Dickensian image of crowded bustling streets and commerce, with Santa in the child’s dream above–he has a sleigh and reindeer but looks nothing at all like Santa Claus:

In 1862 Thomas Nast signed his first Christmas engraving. Nast started working as an illustrator at 15: Harper’s hired him at nineteen. He was a brilliant artist and political satirist, and for twenty years he practically owned Christmas at Harper’s.

Nast’s 1862 engraving shows a couple separated by the Civil War. Santa Claus starts down a chimney at top left: on the other side he tosses presents to soldiers from his sleigh. Nast presents Christmas as a national holiday: where Dickens used Christmas to sentimentalize capitalism, Nast used Christmas to sentimentalize national feeling in the North, and the anxiety of war.

The next year he continued the theme. A soldier on furlough returns to his family, and Santa Claus, recognizably in his modern garb, sneaks past sleeping children. This was one of his most popular engravings: combining politics and family, public and private, natio0nal and local, brutal political necessity and familial sentimentality. Notice the very small place assigned to Jesus: it’s not about Christ, it’s about the nation.

In that same issue, Nast included this engraving of Santa, dressed in red white and blue, distributing packages to soldiers.

Santa Claus originates in preindustrial fears of scarcity. Folk tales often focus on magical production of scarce goods: Hansel and Gretel find a house made out of food. Nast has drafted the tradition of magical abundance into the service of the United States: this same magical industrial abundance would doom the Confederacy.

In 1864 Nast produced a stunning image, intensely detailed. Lincoln invites ragged, hungry, Confederate soldiers to join him at the “Union Christmas Dinner;” empty chairs bear the names of the Confederate states. Vignettes of mercy in surrender surround the central image. Santa Claus, barley visible, rides across the top. The family dinner of 1860 Nast recasts as a national family, a grand magical  feast, and Santa Claus spreads nationalism, not presents.

The mood of conciliation vanished in 1865. Nast again mixed the private and the public, domestic and national life–but  1865 was a good year for the North. At the bottom, “Ulysses the Giant Killer” stands over the severed heads of CSA generals. Behind Grant, on the left, a freed slave rejoices. Lincoln, on the right, shows English, French, and German leaders Grant’s accomplishments. It’s a play: Sherman rides a hobby horse.

On the right, war pervades domestic life. A Union cemetery forms the background. A boy in a uniform blows a toy bugle, and a veteran with a missing leg narrates the war before a fire.  On the left, the domestic side, a girl holds her doll while a middle aged man dances with a child. Santa winks at the whole scene while proclaiming “Merry Christmas to all”

It was certainly not a Merry Christmas in the South. Santa’s wink has a vindictive edge to it. But Nast married a religious holiday to secular, public politics. Santa Claus as we know him was born in the war between the States–not just Santa Claus, but the idea of Christmas as a nearly universal national holiday.

When the war ended, Nast’s Santa Claus moved into the interior spaces, and got less overtly political. He did hundreds of Christmas pictures, publishing them in Harper’s and in books aimed at “children and those who sympathize with them.” This 1881 engraving is probably his most famous:

It’s cheery and bright, but right away you notice the child’s uniform belt with the letter “US,” and the sword. Nast wants to make Christmas about the nation, and national abundance.

This image, from 1879, is superficially apolitical. But a girl, improbably, holds the flag, while at Santa’s feet lies a toy cartridge box labeled “US.”

Not all of Nast’s Christmas drawings have explicit political content. But together they show the social work that Santa Claus was made to do. In the mid 19th century Christmas and Thanksgiving—private, interior, thankful—replaced the turbulent and rowdy public, political holidays of the past. But in Nast’s work Christmas had a political edge: not political in the sense of “I want my rights,” but political in the sense of nation-building. As Dickens used Christmas to soften the hard edges of capitalism, Nast used Christmas to make the expanded Federal power following the Civil War war more benign, and link preindustrial fantasies of abundance to industrial realities. Santa Claus symbolized the idealized nation: bountiful, loving, powerful, capable of magic, keeping careful account of who was deserving and who wasn’t.

So Merry Christmas to all those that celebrate it, a happy holiday to those that don’t. And thanks very much to all those who have taken the time to read this blog.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff McClurken, John McChesney-Young and Joseph Adelman, fursuiting. fursuiting said: The American History of Santa Claus – The Aporetic: St. Nick has familiar accessories–fur suit, sack, belly, rei… […]

  • […] The American History of Santa Claus – The Aporetic Santa como instrumento político-social. […]

  • Hurðaskellir Sjöundi wrote:

    Dear Mike,

    Thank you for this exellent article that manages to render a clear overall view of the development of modern Santa figure that has conquered the world. Special thanks for focusing on the work of Nast and emhasizing the political dimension of Santa and Christmas.

    One question:

    Why does Santa have a red outfit in the colored version of Nast’s famous 1881 engrav­ing? Is there some political meaning in this color also?

    On behalf of the Xmas Gnomes for Gift Economy movement I wish you Happy new year!


  • nubwaxer wrote:

    when will we have a holiday that celebrates the make believe “job creator”? the one who comes in the night to steal your life.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *