The Wonders of Santa Claus: Pictures of Saint Nick earlier than Thomas Nast

By Jeffrey V. Moy, Center for History and Genealogy in North Jersey

Famous Morristown Illustrator Thomas Nast First he drew Santa Claus as we know him today. He was dressed in red, had a cheerful mood, and was tall. He had his headquarters on the North Pole with a workshop of dedicated elves and delivered gifts on Christmas Eve in his sleigh pulled by reindeer.

However, earlier 19th century depictions of Santa Claus showed a slightly different version of the jolly old elf.

The 1857 Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly with the illustrated story “The Miracles of Santa Claus”. Collections of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center (NJHGC).

An early account of the daily life and habits of Saint Nick first appeared in an issue of Harper’s Weekly in 1857 and details “his amazing castle, his lovely gifts for all good children, and his real name.”

Among the items made by the many elves who work at Santa Claus’ hilltop house are “cakes, sugar plums, and toys to fill the stockings that the little girls and boys hung up.”

Detail of the 1857 Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly showing some of the many toys lovingly handcrafted in Santa’s workshop. NJHGC collections.

Among the toys made in 1857 were “wagons and dolls, pipes, birds and elephants; wild monkey drest [sic] Like little men and dogs who could almost bark, they watch that if they had wheels they could strike the old clock in the park. “

Also “army men, fire engines, violins, trumpets, horses with riders, drums, pianos, steam boats and jewelry.”

Excerpt from “The Miracles of Santa Claus”, in which the entrance door to St. Nick’s Castle contains a warning for children who resist their bedtime. Lazy and unstudied children were similarly disappointed. NJHGC collections.

However, children who attempted to spy on workshop activities were quickly disappointed when the alarm elves stopped production. “And just as you might think you are there, you are walking in a frosty fog … But there was once a clever boy who saw this sign on the gate:” Nobody can ever enter here who is late in bed . Don’t let those who expect a good stocking spend too much time in the game. Keep the book and keep working in your head all the time and be up until daylight. ‘“

Second panel from “The Miracles of Santa Claus”.

The story continues: “Do you think you’re guessing who he is and what country he came to. He was born in Germany and St. Nicholas is his name … “

But wait, a German home address? What about Santa’s famous North Pole headquarters, not to mention its Scandinavian, English, and Middle Eastern origins? Traditions?

An 1858 issue of Harper’s Weekly describes the custom of “gathering evergreen plants for Christmas,” where leaves are harvested to literally bring the holiday into the house. This tradition was popularized in England after Queen Victoria adopted the custom of her German-born husband, Prince Albert. The Americans soon followed. NJHGC collections.

In recognition of St. Nick’s German ancestry, the author points to major cultural changes that occurred in the mid-19th century when massive waves of German immigration introduced religious, social, and cultural norms into everyday life such as the United States previously did had not experienced.

As with the introduction of the Christmas tree and city lighting ceremonies in the 1850s, German customs influenced other aspects of American culture.

These included an increased emphasis on the Sabbath as a day of recreation alongside prayer, the importance of alcohol in social gatherings, and the practice of maintaining the customs and languages ​​of the ancient world in families for generations.

St. Nick on the high seas, propelled by a group of elves. Detail from “The Miracles of Santa Claus”.

Emerging technologies also affected various details of this pre-Nast story: The reliance on sea and air travel to deliver tons of gifts by Christmas.

The story continues: “The twenty-fourth day of December was almost over, his goods were packed in a large balloon nearby [sic] were his house and sleigh; He had his skates on and a ship was being weighed. Because he should travel by sea and land and sometimes through the air and then fly smoothly over the rivers if the ice would carry his weight. “

Santa Claus is preparing for the journey by sleigh, sailing ship and balloon.

St. Nick’s flight route took him from Amsterdam to France and then from Ireland to America. “When everyone was good and went to church and heard what they heard, the children never learned to speak a bad or cheeky word … With lots of smiles everywhere [sic], like Christmas, every day, satisfaction and love at every stove, oh what rare times they were! “

After a long night of gifts around the world, Santa Claus is walking home.

In contrast to later depictions of Santa Claus retreating to the North Pole in a sleigh after a long night around the globe, in 1857 he was busy reducing some of those vacation calories with a little practice: “But long before all of this was said, the stockings were all filled, and Santa Claus ran home with a slightly chilled nose. “


  • Harper’s Weekly. Collections of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center

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