Santa Claus: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus
Nineteenth-century illustrations depicting Santa Claus reveal that people held widely varying views as to what the gift bringer looked like. Some imagined him as fat, others as thin. Some saw him as gnome-like, others as an adult human being. One magazine illustration even depicted him as a little girl, perhaps confusing him with another gift bringer, Christkindel. In the late 1800s illustrator Thomas Nast, a German-born immigrant, published a series of Santa Claus drawings that captured the public imagination and settled the issue of Santa’s appearance.
In embellishing the mythic figure outlined by Moore and Irving, Nast may well have drawn on his knowledge of northern European customs surrounding Christmas gift givers. In a series of drawings published over the course of thirty years, Nast created the Santa Claus costume with which we are so familiar today: a long, white beard, black boots, and a red suit trimmed with white fur. At least one writer has speculated that Nast drew on popular German conceptions of a fur-clad gift giver, such as Belsnickel, in designing the costume. The fact that the costume was primarily red, however, suggests that Nast had the European St. Nicholas in mind, since the saint was traditionally depicted wearing the red robes of a bishop.
Nast expanded the Santa lore of his time by giving the gift bringer a home address, the North Pole, and some new helpers, elves. Furthermore, although Moore’s poem suggested that Santa was an elf himself, Nast settled on portraying him as a fat, jolly, elderly man. Some speculate that Nast knew of the Scandinavian tradition whereby elves deliver Christmas gifts (see Jultomten). They suggest that knowledge of this folk custom may have inspired him to add elves to Santa’s household.