The holidays are upon us and with it the joys of family drama, drunken office parties and endless ads of a fat guy in a red suit hawking everything from Coca-Cola to Porsches. The legend of Santa Claus began as humble Saint Nicholas during the Roman Empire, but today it is difficult to see him as anything but a master marketer of the modern age. As with most cultural constructs however, this is just the latest phase of a complex evolution, one that includes a brutal tour of duty as War propaganda.

It was the winter of 1863, the Civil War was raging and in an effort to boost morale among the Northern States, American political cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated a series of holiday cartoons for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. The most iconic of these showed a chubby, bearded Santa distributing presents to a Union Army camp, a charming concept with some grisly details. In Santa’s hands, dangled a puppet toy with a noose around its neck. The puppet bore a striking resemblance to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, thus making clear to the reader the Jolly Old Elf’s wartime allegiances.    

Regardless of its function as blatant anti-Southern propaganda, historians often cite this illustration as the first modern interpretation of Santa that would dominate not only America, but eventually the world. Throughout the War, Nast’s newly imagined and wildly popular Kris Kringle, promoted abolition, civil rights and the ideals of Lincoln’s Republican Party. So successful was he that General Ulysses S. Grant stated: “(Nast) did as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.” 

After the Wa, Nast created another series of images which, like Santa, would alter American culture. In them, stubborn Democratic Donkeys and clumsy Republican Elephants clash in opposition over the issues of post-War America. While ubiquitous now, this was the first time politics was rendered in such a way and it struck a chord with the public that resonates very loudly to this day. 

So next time you see Santa’s twinkling eyes coaxing you into bundling with Xfinty, just remember that below that ‘Bowl full of Jelly’ is a War hardened, slavery hating Saint. Be warned all you scrooges and trollers out there, you’re on the $h*t list and Mr. Claus has a big bag full of planet warming coal to cram down your stocking.  

Learn Something: 
In 2018, the toymaker Hasbro, who brought the world Play Doh, trademarked the scent of the dough describing it as “the combination of a sweet, slight musky, vanilla-like fragrance with slight overtones of cherry, and a natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”