Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thomas Nast : Good old Mr Santa Claus!

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

So, it's that time of year again - Christmas! The supermarkets are serenading their shoppers with Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade, and John and Yoko's Merry Christmas (War is Over); the chirpy carol singers are out in the shopping centres with their joy and their bonhomie - except, that is, in the English town of Hemel Hempstead, where they've been banned for health and safety reasons (is it to protect them from us or us from them?); and the jolly Santas are filling their grottos with the sound of their merry, Yuletide laughter - though not the one that recently attacked his employer brandishing a knife.

The cult of Father Christmas most likely owes its origins t0 Dutch folklore and the figure Sinterklaas, anglicised into Santa Claus, and refined into his modern image by German-born American political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). It was Nash that gave Santa his red coat and his chubby profile, and also, in the many illustrations that Nast did for the magazine Harper's Weekly, his opium pipe (?), which was the fashion at the time. (His contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, also liked to dabble in the opium dens of old London town, much to the disapproval of his fuddy-duddy associate and chronicler, Dr Watson.)

Thomas Nast cartoon
Nast was a friend of Mark Twain and shared his political views with him. He was an advocate for the abolition of slavery and an end to segregation. He was a supporter of the Republican Party until the 1884 presidential election when he switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, and became a mugwump in the process (ooh, nasty!). But these things are insignificant compared with his iconic Santa Claus, without which our Christmases would have no more significance than getting drunk and behaving badly at the office party. 

Good old Santa!

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