At this time of the year it is appropriate to recall that the modern image of Santa Claus was largely created by a German immigrant to these shores, Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. The above is the first of his many Santa Claus drawings. It appeared on January 3, 1863 and showed a Red, White and Blue clad Santa visiting Union troops. Nast would draw Santa Claus many times throughout his career and the Santa we see today is largely Santa as imagined by Nast.
Born in 1840 in Landau in Germany, then a geographical term rather than a nation, Nast came to America as a child, along with his family. His passion for drawing was notable even as a child. In 1862 he became illustrator for Harper’ Weekly, a post he would hold until 1886.
Nast was a cartoonist with strong convictions. He loved the Union, racial equality, at least for Negroes and the Chinese immigrants in the West, the Republican party, until he supported Grover Cleveland in 1884, political reform, and any number of other reform causes. He was also clear as to what he hated: the Confederacy, political corruption, especially the Tammany Hall organization in New York and the Democrat party, until he supported Cleveland in 1884. Among his hates were Irish immigrants, largely supporters of the Democrat party, and the Catholic Church.
Like many a bitter anti-Catholic bigot, Nast was a born and baptized Catholic. He had left the Faith by his marriage in 1861 to an Episcopalian. Nast’s anti-Catholicism was savage. Typical is an 1870 cartoon where the Pope is depicted as lusting to conquer America:
Nast also hated Mormons, as depicted in the cartoon below where Nast symbolizes Catholicism and Mormons as foreign reptiles, demonstrating that Nast knew little about Mormonism, an entirely American creation, or of the history of Catholicism in what is now the United States, which stretches back to the earliest explorations:
The most famous of Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoon is one entitled The American River Ganges where he depicts American bishops as alligators attacking school children. This was because Catholics actually had the temerity to wish to have their children educated in Catholic schools:
One would like to write that Nast eventually repented of his hatred of the Church, but there is no evidence of that. His later years were hard. He started a magazine known as Nast’s Weekly in 1892 which folded after several months, taking most of Nast’s money with it. He survived off rare commissions, in desperation applying in 1902 with the State Department for a consulate. Roosevelt appointed him consul general in Guayquil, Ecuador. He died in that heavily Catholic nation on December 7, 1902 during an outbreak of Yellow Fever. To give Nast his due, he bravely stayed on the job, helping other Americans escape the contagion that ultimately killed him.