Happy holidays? A closer look at artists’ renditions of not-so-jolly Santa postcards

Santa Claus is a jolly old elf beloved of children and postcard collectors, but some artists of the early 1900s gave him a less than sentimental image. Even when they got the beard and costume right, they didn’t picture him as someone you’d want in your living room in the middle of the night.

Forget the delightful creations of artists like Ellen H. Clapsaddle. There were cynics lurking in the artistic community, and finding their creations can be as much fun as hunting for different-colored Santa suits.

The Santa of today owes much to two 19th century men: Dr. Clement C. Moore and Thomas Nast. Dr. Moore’s classic poem written in 1822, “The Night Before Christmas,” described Santa in this way:

Mailed from Brinker Hts., now part of Marion, Indiana, this is obviously a Santa for naughty children to avoid. The only clue on his expression is a frown line above his nose, but the switch in his hand spoils his image as a benevolent gift-giver. It’s a German-made card by an unidentified publisher.

“His eyes – how they twinkled, his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.”

Dr. Moore never considered publishing his Santa poem. He wrote it for his children, and a woman outside the family, Miss Butler of Troy, N.Y., obtained a copy and sent it to the local newspaper. It was published without Moore’s knowledge, permission, or name. He was not pleased at first, but eventually it made him famous. His classical poems are long forgotten, but his description is a blueprint for the Santa so well loved today.

Words are one thing, images another. Thomas Nast was a leading political cartoonist, but he put aside his barbed pen to create a picture of Santa that has never been equaled. In 1862, the North was suffering the darkest days of the Civil War when Nast drew a melancholy Santa for the cover of Harper’s Magazine to celebrate the birth of Christ. He also drew a centerfold emphasizing the sacrifices of Union families.

Nast drew on the German traditions of his own family, emphasizing Santa’s role as a gift giver. His wonderful picture of Santa bedecked with gifts and smoking his long-bowed pipe set the standard for Santa images up to the present, but many cultures contributed to the traditions surrounding the magical elf. Immigrants from many countries brought their legends and observances to this country, blending them into the benevolent creature we enjoy today.

It’s common knowledge that Santa sprung from the legends about St. Nicholas, the wealthy bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey) who provided dowries for three poor nobleman’s daughters so they could marry.

Less attention has been paid to the many other cultures that contributed to the legend of the gift-giving elf. In Scandinavian countries, an elf called Julenissen brought gifts to good children. In England, it was Father Christmas, and several countries, including Holland and Belgium, kept the tradition of St. Nicholas.

The gift-giver took other forms. In Spain, it was Balthazar, one of the wise men who brought gifts on the eve of Epiphany in remembrance of the gifts given to the Baby Jesus. In Syria, the Good Camel brought presents, and in Italy, a little old woman called Befana came down the chimneys of houses to leave gifts for little ones because she’s been too busy sweeping to join the wise men searching for the new-born king. And on this side of the Atlantic,  Mexicans have looked to Quetzalcoatl, the ancient feathered serpent god ofthe Aztecs as a gift-giving figure.

The National Santa Claus Series is a particularly unusual series that was published by Ullman Mfg. Co., N.Y., copyright 1907. The elf is shown in different national costumes, but the faces are all rather strange. There’s nothing jolly about the expression in their eyes. The Scotland version is shown here.

There were darker traditions, too. In France, Bonhomme Noel was accompanied by Pere Fouettard (Father Whipper), who left a birch rod for unfortunate naughty children.

The Krampus was even more cruel – a creature usually pictured as dark and devilish in Alpine cultures, including Austria, Southern Bavaria and Hungary. He traveled with St. Nicholas to punish bad children, sometimes stuffing the worst behaved in his sack to carry away – for his dinner. This nasty being is sometimes pictured on postcards with Santa Claus.

With such a rich heritage of folklore, some dating to pre-Christian times, it’s not surprising a few artists gave Santa a less-than-jolly interpretation. Even on pleasing designs with toys and traditional garb, Santa is sometimes shown with an unpleasant human expression.

Forget the colorful suit, the big fluffy beard, and the load of toys. Look into Santa’s face and read what you see there. Is he really a cheerful elf, delighted to be giving toys to children? Some artists must have slyly disagreed. Although these portrayals are fairly unusual, they bring a new dimension to a long-favorite postcard topic.

With postcards, there’s always a new twist and new ways to add enjoyment to the pursuit of paper treasures. ■