Ask anyone today to describe Santa Claus and you will pretty much get the same answers…red suit, full white beard, big belly. But our image of the jolly old elf used to be really inconsistent. Santa was depicted in a variety of ways, wearing all sorts of attire and with varying degrees of facial hair. The current consensus on Santa’s appearance stems from one particular drawing by Thomas Nast that appeared in the December 29, 1866, edition of Harper’s Weekly. Here is how Nash developed his depiction of Santa and how the image inspired others.
Nast Drew Inspiration from a Famous Poem
When drawing his famous Santa image for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast looked to the description of Santa from A Visit From St. Nicholas, 1822 by Clement Clark Moore. In the poem, which begins with the iconic line “T’was the night before Christmas,” Moore described Santa as having a “beard of his chin was as white as the snow” and “a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.” Images of Santa prior to this often showed him beardless and slim.
A Thomas Nast drawings of Santa. (rarenewspapers.com)
Nast Added a Germanic Flair
In drawing the folklore character, Nast looked to his own German heritage for inspiration. His Santa is wearing a suit made of fur, albeit in a bright red color, that is trimmed in white fur and belted with a wide black leather belt. Nast even showed Santa filling the stockings that children have left hanging on the fireplace…a German Christmas tradition.
Another Thomas Nast Santa illustration. (pri.org)
Nast Created Many Santa Drawings
Between 1863 and 1886, Thomas Nast drew 32 Santa illustrations for Harper’s Weekly that cemented the public’s visualization of the benevolent Christmas saint. In fact, the 1881 full page, color depiction of Santa from the magazine is widely praised as ‘Santa’s official portrait.’ In all of Nast’s Santa illustrations, we can find the key aspects of the universal Santa…red suit, white beard, pudgy physique, boots, and belt.
A Thomas Nast Christmas card drawing (fineartamerica.com)
Nast’s Drawings were Circulated as Christmas Cards
In the 1870s and 1880s, the idea of mailing Christmas cards to loved ones was a fairly new idea. Christmas card manufacturers adopted Nast’s Santa drawings…or had their own artists draw up similar Santas…to adorn the cover of Christmas cards.
One of Norman Rockwell's many Santa paintings. (art.com)
Nast Inspired Norman Rockwell
Beginning in the 1920s, prolific painter, Norman Rockwell, started work for the Saturday Evening Post. Among the illustrations, he did for this publication were a number of Santa Claus drawings. Rockwell’s version of Santa relied heavily on Nast’s and continued his standardization of jolly old St. Nick. Rockwell’s Santa paintings have become iconic…setting the bar for other Santa artists to come.
Coca-Cola Santa created by Hadden Sundblom (huffingtonpost.com)
Coca-Cola’s Santa is Based on Nast and Rockwell’s Work
Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator working for Coca-Cola, used Santa in the company’s marketing campaign in the mid-1900s. His popular illustrations also show a Santa that is similar in appearance to the folklore elf drawn by Nast and Rockwell. The Coca-Cola Santa also sports a red outfit and a full beard, and a red nose. In fact, it is these three sources…Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell, and Coca-Cola…who are credited with making Santa the man he is today.