Thomas Nast, Santa Claus and Anti-Catholicism

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Union Santa Claus

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:

Nast anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon

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:

The River Ganges

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.

More to explorer

Thought For the Day


I am truly surprised by this:   The Arizona Democratic Party is planning to hold a vote this week to determine whether

Saint of the Day Quote: Saint Joseph of Cupertino

  I like not scruples nor melancholy: let your intention be right and fear not. Saint Joseph of Cupertino     There


  1. We can hope, Mary– and somewhat true, Penguins Fan. I was a badly educated Catholic, and… wait, not the best example… my husband was a HORRIBLY badly educated Catholic, and he’s definitely not nasty.

  2. DOnald, you rihgtly poin out the American origins of Mormonism. It is an American creation, but unlike most other groups emerging out of that burned over district and elsewhere, Mormonism never really gained full acceptance. It remains weird to many.

  3. True, Donald. That’s especially true out West. They HAVE become more mainstream. They’ve acquired something of a global empire i’ve heard. Their narrative is so dubious, though. For someone who is logical and analytical, and Christians are quite capable of being so, Mormonism is a fairytale wtihout correspondance to hisotry or the factual realm. Christianity is historical and as we see it, the structure of existence. Correspondance-wise and coherence-wise, it’s philosophically the perfect fit. And of course it would be because it’s true.

  4. Nast also stuck us with the familiar Donkey and Elephant mascots for the Democrat and Republican parties.

    In case anyone didn’t already know.

  5. A well educated Catholic gone wrong is a far more dangerous thing that a poorly educated one who is simply ignorant.

  6. “Mormonism is a fairytale wtihout correspondance to hisotry or the factual realm.”

    I don’t agree with the LDS, and don’t see myself getting convinced any time soon, but maybe that’s not the most generous way to talk about them – not that I haven’t ever told a Mormon joke among friends.

  7. One thing I have observed: those who are viciously anti-Catholic very often are often will reveal in the next breath that they are equally viciously bigoted against the LDS Church. A short amount of exploration of the bigot’s premises oftenreveals hostility to the fact that both groups tend to be traditional oriented towards family values and both support traditional marriage. When someone holds up a bad Mormon-type (“Jack-Mormon”), I can only look at the Jack-Catholics our side has (like Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi, the late Ted Kennedy, and we could go on and on ad nauseam. Ad my nauseam).

  8. One thing I have observed: those who are viciously anti-Catholic very often are often will reveal in the next breath that they are equally viciously bigoted against the LDS Church.

    So not “really” against either, just against those who make them feel ashamed for misbehaving.

  9. I think we can speak generously about the Mormon’s practical approach to life in certian instances. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out the absurdity of their faith claims, however. If we are dealing with truth, it should be acknowledged that they base much of their beliefs upon a novel written in the nineteenth century.

  10. I am Irish/Catholic and am studying Nast for my master’s degree. More on his Chinese depictions but I have done considerable research on his relations with the Irish & Catholic populations of the day. My opinion is his “hatred” was aimed directly at the Tweed-Irish-Catholic alliance, which of course, factored in to his reaction to the public or common school issue, which was at the heart of his dispute with the Catholics.This had a lot to do with Tweed. I personally was shocked to discover that American Catholics were not in favor of abolition, the leadership of the church, Bishop Hughes, preferring not to tamper with the status quo of slavery. That was never taught in my Cattholic education and we bear some responsibility for that part of our history. Nast did not hate Catholics. He was indeed baptized in the faith, and converted to the Episcopalian faith upon his marriage. Nast frequently praised progressive Catholics, such as Dollinger and Hyacinth and admired their independant thinking during the promologation of papal infallability. As a satirist or caricatturist, his pen in hand was brutal toward anyone or institution he felt displayed hypocrisy. His contemporary biography made a point of saying he was not anti Catholic, merely against the policies that linked them to Tweed or to Democrats. Later when talk of Chinese exclusion began festering, he blamed the Irish for leading that oppression. Did Nast have any point? That is a hot question – a very difficult topic. Certainly Germans Americans conidered themselves superior to their fellow Irish immigrants. Almost every Protestant did. The Irish were at the low end of the totem pole…and you can’t blame them for doing what they needed to do to rise. My research shows that the ire in Nast’s ink was more political than personal or theological. He was one of the first artists to portray African Americans as dignified and normal – but later, when they made questionable aliances with Democrats, Nast skewered them, depicting them as stereotypic buffons. A lifelong Radical Republican Nast went after Rep. Blaine when he ran for president. All because he changed his mind about the Chinese. So there is a consistency to his brutal caricatures. He went to the extreme with the Irish and Catholics, agreed, but on issues like abolition and public school funds and Tweed, Nast’s passion was at its highest, and therefore his attacks were the most virulent.

  11. Like today, people ofthat time were locked into polarized positions. If you were Republican, you took the entire package. If Democrat, the same. The likes and dislikes came together in the package. Republicans were the nativists.

  12. You let Nast off much too easy Michele. Nast in regard to the Catholic Church simply hated it. Those who broke with the Church like Dollinger of course he liked! (By the way, calling Dollinger “progressive” shows the limitations of that term. Dollinger thought that he was the one standing against innovations within the Church. He was wrong but labeling him progressive drains that term of any meaning.)

    “I personally was shocked to discover that American Catholics were not in favor of abolition, the leadership of the church, Bishop Hughes, preferring not to tamper with the status quo of slavery.”

    “Dagger John” was steadfast for the Union during the War in the face of quite a bit of opposition. Some Catholics were in favor of abolition and spoke out prior to the Civil War. Most Catholics tended to have views on slavery based upon their political allegiances and most Catholics were Democrats and most Democrats were not in favor of abolition. Abolition seems like an easy question for us today. It was not so simple for most people at the time. Consider how many Catholics you have probably encountered who are pro-aborts. Evils that should be immediately condemned frequently are not once they become well-established.

    “As a satirist or caricatturist, his pen in hand was brutal toward anyone or institution he felt displayed hypocrisy.”

    Ah hypocrisy! I sometimes think that is the only sin in these degraded times. I think you completely misread Nast. He had well developed beliefs and simply blasted anyone who had the temerity not to share those beliefs.

  13. “I personally was shocked to discover that American Catholics were not in favor of abolition, the leadership of the church, Bishop Hughes, preferring not to tamper with the status quo of slavery. That was never taught in my Catholic education and we bear some responsibility for that part of our history.”

    That’s a subject that I’d like to see a good book written about… I might have to write it if no one else has 🙂

    Just based on what I’ve read to date about the subject, I believe there were several reasons why antebellum American Catholics generally didn’t want to touch the abolitionist movement with a 10-foot pole, despite strong condemnations of slavery and the slave trade by the popes of the time:

    1. As a church made up primarily of recently arrived immigrants who were by and large dirt poor and themselves the targets of vicious nativist attacks, the bishops and priests of the time were simply too preoccupied with the survival of their own flocks to get involved in such a divisive issue.

    2. Some prominent abolitionists were also anti-Catholic; some even proclaimed the Catholic Church and its hierarchy to be just as much a threat to the Republic as the “Slave Power.” Adherents of the former Know Nothing Party made up a big chunk of the early Republican Party so, needless to say, Catholics felt about as welcome in that party as ants at a picnic.

    3. The Church, from what I gather, did not, at that time, place slavery quite on the same level of intrinsic evil as it places abortion and euthanasia today. Slavery was perhaps more comparable (in the eyes of 19th century bishops) to capital punishment as it is regarded by today’s hierarchy — an institution that had been around since time immemorial and was, in theory, justifiable, but in practice led to so many abuses that it was time to abolish it. And even if the Church did condemn slavery, the question of whether slavery was enough of an evil to demand immediate emancipation of all slaves regardless of the cost — which everyone knew would mean massive bloodshed via civil war or a slave rebellion — was probably enough to give most priests and bishops pause. It could be that the Church remained silent on the issue of slavery, particularly in the American South where pro-slavery laws and viewpoints were rigidly enforced, for much the same reason that Pope Pius XII allegedly remained “silent” regarding the Holocaust — it was a matter of prudence because speaking out would do nothing to improve the situation of the slaves and would likely only make things worse for Catholics.

    4. A Catholic could, apparently, own slaves and remain a Catholic in good standing, provided that he treated them with charity and respect. The Church did teach that slaves were never to be treated as mere chattels and that their marriage and family ties should be respected — husbands and wives were not to be sold away from one another or parents from children. In some cases, Catholic slaves and slaveowners attended the same parishes and slaves were permitted to marry and have their children baptized in the Catholic Church. Case in point: Servant of God Fr. Augustine Tolton, the first identified black priest in the U.S., who was born to a slave couple in Missouri in 1854 and was baptized in the same parish that his family’s owners belonged to.

    All that said, I do find it intriguing to compare the Church’s approach to slavery in the 19th century with its approach to abortion, same-sex civil marriage, capital punishment, etc. today. As far as I know, no one ever demanded that Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, a Catholic, be excommunicated for the Dred Scott decision the way pro-lifers demanded that Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, also a Catholic, be excommunicated for siding with the majority on Roe vs. Wade. Why that is the case is a pretty long story, I suppose.

  14. Those are the stereotypes, Elaine. The democrats didn’t care about equality and the republicans didn’t care about non-Americans and all the rest of it. Still today people sign onto platforms that always represent mixed bags. Few analyze the merits of each element. If they did, we’d have more independents.

  15. Re Nast’s Santa: Yesterday I attended a Christmas open house at the Illinois Governor’s Mansion, which featured Christmas trees decorated in various historical themes. One tree had a Civil War theme decorated with figures of Nash’s Santa and a poster explaining the 1863 Harper’s Weekly illustration. The poster pointed out that the face of the puppet that Santa is playing with is that of Jefferson Davis — and that Santa is symbolically hanging him! Guess Nast just couldn’t help including a dig at the South…

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