Friday, December 23, 2016

The Original Santa

A year ago at Christmas I posted an image by Thomas Nast of Santa Claus, published in the 1880s, that seemed to be the earliest image of St. Nick to be found. Turns out, someone beat him to it by several decades.

Thomas Nast, Harpers Weekly, 1881
Nast is famous for depicting the jolly old elf in nearly the form we know him today. That is, jolly and fat, bearded, clothed all in fur and smoking a pipe. To make him even more festive, he's wearing holly on his hat and carrying toys for all the good little girls and boys.

As I mentioned in that post, Nast certainly deserves credit for crystallizing the image of Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas--try saying that name very fast) set down in the famous poem of a few decades earlier by Clement Moore.

There are others who deserve credit for the Santa image we have today, probably most prominently Haddon Sundblom. Mr. Sundblom's illustrations of Santa graced Coca Cola ads for decades, and it's his obviously jolly, fat, and red-clad image that continues as one of the universal memes of the Christmas season. One interesting detail to notice is that none of the Coca Cola Santas seems to smoke a pipe.

Haddon Sundblom, 1954 Coca Cola Santa
Mr. Sundblom seems to have used himself as a model fairly often, to good effect. But in the 1954 version of his classic he painted Santa with his wide belt on backwards, having forgotten to reverse his mirror image. Apparently the mistake provoked a real blizzard of responses, not all of which were polite and understanding. Nonetheless, Mr. Sundblom continued to paint images of Santa for another decade or so. Much later he even painted a self-referential Playboy magazine cover.

But as I mentioned, it turns out that someone before Nast actually published an image rather like our own vision of St. Nick. The periodical was Dollar Magazine, a new publication in 1841 that cost exactly one dollar for a year's subscription, which published an image of Santa Claus in its very first edition in January 1841. The image is an engraving, signed "R. Roberts," and features much of what we see in Nast's picture forty years later, and more. A younger-looking Santa is going down the chimney, bearing gifts for the good little girls and boys, his sleigh and reindeer on the rooftop.

Oddly enough, although he seems to have been the first to use Clement Moore's description of Santa on the night before Christmas, the artist or the magazine itself somehow--amazingly--got the holiday wrong!

Regardless of all that, my wish for everyone in these times of trial and conflict and division in the world is a happy Christmas holiday (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or perhaps Las Posadas in Mexico) and a prosperous and peaceful new year. Lets all try to love one another, just a little, at least for now.
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