How Santa Claus became part of Christmas

Ernie the Eagle

Are your kids asking questions about Santa Claus? Here are a few answers for them!

There wasn't much for Union soldiers to celebrate during the Christmas season of 1862. The War Between the States was going badly for them, with Confederate forces winning big victories in Virginia at Manassas (twice), the Shenandoah Valley and Fredericksburg.

Out west, the fighting was at a stalemate and morale among Northern troops was low. What the boys in blue really needed for Christmas was a victory. What they got instead was Santa Claus.

Enter Thomas Nast, an artist who rapidly was making a name for himself as a political cartoonist and illustrator for publications such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine.

In an effort to lift the spirits of Union soldiers, Nast created a cartoon character for Harper's based on a fourth century bishop in Asia Minor named Saint Nicholas, who later became known to the Western world as the patron saint of children and an endearing symbol of Christmas.

Until 1862, St. Nick was often pictured as tall and gaunt. Nast fattened him up and dressed him in a gaudy red suit with white trim. A flowing white beard and a bulging bag of toys completed the picture. Although Nast’s intentions were good, his attempt to raise morale failed. Union soldiers simply needed something more tangible – namely, a victory over Confederate forces.

But Santa Claus was destined to catch on, and gradually the roly-poly prince of good will found his way into Northern holiday celebrations, replacing his skinny European counterpart. During the remainder of the Civil War, Santa was a Northern mascot; the South and the rest of the country warmed to him only after the end of hostilities in 1865.

After the war, when politics dominated the American scene, Nast went on to invent the Republican elephant and Democrat donkey.

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