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

Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

"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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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