Art Markets: Visions of Santa Claus dance in our heads

Christmas is the most festive season on the American calendar; so much so that the spending associated with the holiday has become an important marker for the U.S. economy. A slow Christmas is bad for business.

It wasn’t always so. In many Christian cultures, Christmas held a place of honor on the calendar second only to Easter. The British Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1643 and many of the early American colonies followed suit. Christmas cards weren’t produced in England until 1843, the year Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol was first published, and didn’t become popular in the U.S. until after the Civil War.

During the late 19th century, as Christmas became increasingly commercialized and gradually distanced from its religious origins, many of the now-familiar images associated with the holiday became popular, including lithographs and engravings of jolly St. Nick laden with gifts.

Like his familiar red-suited image, Santa Claus was an Americanization of old traditions brought to the New World. The name derives from “Sinterklass,” as the Dutch colonists of early New York called St. Nicholas. Before long the appearance of the benign friend of children evolved from his ecclesiastical origins as a kindly bishop into a secular holiday gift-giver. Washington Irving pictured him as a jolly fellow in a broad brimmed hat, riding over treetops in a wagon and dropping presents down chimneys.

In Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (with its famous opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas”), Santa is given a red nose and a sled pulled by eight reindeer. An 1837 painting by Robert W. Weir showed a tubby man wearing a hood and knee boots against the snow.

Harpers.jpgThomas Nast depicted Santa in an 1863 cartoon and finally codified the image in his famous drawing, Santa Claus and His Works, which appeared after the Civil War in Harper’s Weekly (1866).

Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the Jan. 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Nast’s rendition of Santa has become the template for all Santa depictions since. The cartoonist could not have anticipated that his visualization of Santa Claus as the bewhiskered jolly fat man shouldering a bag of toys would endure through the 20th century and into the present day, even as Santa’s story grew to encompass elves and a workshop, a wife and a reindeer (also with a red nose).

For Nast, Santa was an afterthought in the midst of a brilliant career. Regarded as the father of American political cartooning, the German-American illustrator drew for Harper’s Weekly and later his own publication, Nast’s Weekly. Deeply immersed in the politics of the day, Nast’s famous attacks on New York’s Democratic Party leader, Boss Tweed, and his Tammany Hall organization were instrumental in bringing the syndicate down. The Tammany Hall Tiger was Nast’s famous symbol created to satirize Boss Tweed’s political empire.

Believing the Irish immigrant communities in New York were sustaining popular support for Tweed, he characterized the Irishman as a chimpanzee and was critical of Catholic Church leaders. A staunch Republican, Nast began using the elephant (a Roman symbol of strength) to characterize the Republican Party and it eventually became their symbol. He is also credited with devising the donkey to represent the Democratic Party and John Bull as the embodiment of Britain.

On a less-vitriolic note, he also created the once-prevalent American symbol of Columbia, a heroic long haired woman adorned with a tiara and flowing gown, clutching a silver sword to defend the poor and dispirited among the population. With a razor wit, he added to the image of Uncle Sam by giving him his whiskers, transforming him from his rawboned origins into a stern, avuncular figure.

At auction, results for Nast’s work are varied. Merry Christmas, a hand-colored woodcut (21 inches by 15 inches) sold at Sotheby’s New York in December 2006 for $600 (with buyer’s premium). Father Christmas In a Winter Landscape, an oil on canvas (6 inches by 9 inches) dated 1860 sold at auction at Weschler’s in Washington in December 2003 for $8,000 (with buyer’s premium).

Currier & Ives represented the next step in the visual evolution of the American holiday season. The prolific publishing team of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives produced many classic images of the United States in the 19th century, creating more than 4,000 colored lithographs depicting everything from the California gold rush to New England clipper ships. Many of their images documented historical and news events of the time, but their enduring legacy concerns nostalgic images of an America that was already fading. Seasonal views of romanticized landscapes reflected a growing middle-class desire to commemorate the bounties of the nation. Winter was often idyllic, with families journeying on sleighs, winding their way to the warmth and glow of home. The winter scenes continue to be popular with their use on Christmas cards.

The hand-colored lithograph, New England Winter Scene, dated 1861, was auctioned by Skinner in 2004 for $5,500 (with buyer’s premium). Winter in the Country (1864) a hand-colored lithograph from the same sale, sold for $15,000 (with buyer’s premium) along with Home To Thanksgiving (1867) a tribute to the coming yuletide, auctioned for $12,000 (with buyer’s premium).

The Sleigh Race, a hand-colored lithograph from 1848 appears on the market frequently, with a current offering of $3,100 available for sale at The Old Print Shop in New York. The century-old gallery of American art maintains a good selection of Currier & Ives prints in its inventory, with a current range for the winter prints from $800 to $12,000.

In the 20th century, Norman Rockwell further developed the Americanization of Christmas as a celebration of gift giving and the family gathered around a warm, open hearth. Rockwell reproduced the Thomas Nast Santa Claus in humorous context, such as Santa At His Desk (1935). At auction, a Rockwell painting of Santa Claus perched on a stepladder sold for $2.17 million in Christie’s Nov. 29 sale. The painting, Extra Good Boys and Girls, is the original of a Saturday Evening Post cover from 1939. It shows Santa going over his book of good boys and girls and planning his Christmas Eve route. A world map is in the background.

Haddon Sundblom (1899–1976) is best known for the images of Santa Claus he created for The Coca-Cola Co. in the 1930s. Sundblom’s Claus firmly established the larger-than-life, grandfatherly Claus as a key figure in Christmas imagery. (He also painted the iconic image of the Quaker Oats man in 1957.)

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call 800-352-8892.