New Amsterdam’s 17th century colonists celebrated “Sinte Klaas” every December 6. The “jolly old elf” who drops toys down chimneys dates to 1823, when “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in an upstate newspaper.
But the Santa we know today was refined and modernized by Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast, whose first depiction of a gift-giving, rotund father figure was published during the December 1862 holiday season, with Civil War raging.
“Nast’s Santa appears on the cover of the paper in an illustration titled ‘Santa Claus in Camp.’ states a website called Civil War Profiles.
“Nast drew a patriotic Santa dressed in striped pants and a coat covered with stars sitting on his sleigh beneath a waving American flag. Two drummer boys in the foreground of the sketch appear fascinated with a jack-in-the-box toy. One soldier is shown opening his box to find a stocking stuffed with presents, while another soldier holds up the pipe he received as a present.”
To make it even clearer which side Santa took in the War Between the States, Nast drew Santa holding a wooden effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis by a rope.
This cover illustration is one of two that feature Santa Claus on a sleigh in that January 3, 1863 issue. Inside is a more sentimental Nast drawing.
And atop the roof is a small bearded man, his reindeer-drawn sleigh parked beside him as he looks down the chimney.
Santa Claus, electric Christmas tree lights, the first tree lighting in a park—New York pioneered many of the holiday celebrations we take part in today, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, explains.