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How Did the U.S. Civil War Shape Our Image of Santa Claus?

The U.S. Civil War played a pivotal role in shaping our modern image of Santa Claus. As a symbol of comfort and normalcy, illustrators like Thomas Nast depicted Santa for morale, blending cultural influences into the jolly, bearded figure we recognize today. Curious how a time of conflict influenced a symbol of joy? Discover the transformation of Santa Claus with us.

The Civil War was one of the darkest times in American history, but at least one bright spot came out of it: Santa Claus. Well, to be more precise, the idea of Santa Claus had been around for a long time, but it wasn't until political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a jolly-looking fellow for Harper's Weekly that anyone "saw" Santa as we know him today.

It wasn't entirely for celebratory reasons, however. Nast created his version of the Christmas icon as a way to support the Union cause in the Civil War. His first drawing showed Santa handing presents to Union troops, while holding a puppet resembling Confederate leader Jefferson Davis with a rope around his neck. His other drawing was more traditional, with Santa coming down a chimney.

The modern image of Santa Claus (shown here in an 1881 drawing) was developed during the U.S. Civil War by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who championed the Union cause.
The modern image of Santa Claus (shown here in an 1881 drawing) was developed during the U.S. Civil War by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who championed the Union cause.

"In these two drawings, Christmas became a Union holiday and Santa a Union local deity," Adam Gopnik said in The New Yorker. "It gave Christmas to the North — gave to the Union cause an aura of domestic sentiment, and even sentimentality." Nast reportedly based Santa – with his beard and his big belly – on himself.

Santa surprises:

  • Santa's red and white outfit came about when Coca-Cola created it for commercials in the 1930s.

  • Washington Irving, author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," was the first to write about Santa entering houses through the chimney.

  • In the United States, letters addressed to Santa go to the post office in Santa Claus, Indiana; those with a return address receive a reply.

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    • The modern image of Santa Claus (shown here in an 1881 drawing) was developed during the U.S. Civil War by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who championed the Union cause.
      The modern image of Santa Claus (shown here in an 1881 drawing) was developed during the U.S. Civil War by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who championed the Union cause.