• The familiar depiction of the “jolly old elf,” Santa Claus, is largely the creation of 19th-century German-American illustrator Thomas Nast. This illustration, “Santa Claus in Camp,” is one of Nast’s earliest versions of a fat, bearded St. Nick.
    Nast was a successful political cartoonist, and “Santa Claus in Camp” is actually a powerful political image. In this 1863 magazine cover, Santa is delivering gifts to Union troops in a snowy winter camp. One soldier holds the precious gift of warm socks, which mimic the holiday tradition of stockings filled with presents. Santa himself demonstrates another gift, a puppet—a childish toy whose significance becomes clear on a closer viewing of the image.
    Read our questions in the Questions tab to delve further into “Santa Claus in Camp,” and better understand the time and place in which it was created.
    1. What clues in the illustration tell the viewer that Santa Claus is visiting a Union, not Confederate, camp?

      Many clues leave no doubt that this is a Union camp. These clues include:

      • the “U.S.” framing the top of the illustration
      • the big U.S. flag flying over the scene
      • Santa is wearing the “Stars and Stripes” of the U.S. flag
      • soldiers wearing Union uniforms


      Perhaps the most powerful symbol is the one least likely to be recognized today. Santa is playing with a type of puppet called a “jumping jack,” which moves when its strings are pulled. The toy is actually a caricature of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (Alert viewers might be able to read “Jeff” spelled out on the puppet’s torso.) Strikingly, the pull-string on the toy is placed around Davis’ neck, while the pull-string on most jumping jacks seem to come out of the puppet’s head. The display would be immediately recognizable to Civil War audiences—it looks like a lynching.

    2. What prior knowledge would a viewer need to decipher some of these clues?

      To understand the significance of the “U.S.” lettering and United States flag, a viewer would need to know that this was an illustration completed during the American Civil War. A viewer would also need to know symbols associated with the two sides fighting that war: the Union and the Confederacy.


      United States” or “U.S.” identified the Union, or North. (The South identified itself as the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.).)


      The United States carried the familiar “Stars and Stripes” flag, while the C.S.A. carried a wide variety of flags. The “Stars and Bars” is probably the most familiar.


      A more knowledgeable viewer might be able to identify the soldiers’ uniforms as Union. Union uniforms were generally dark blue while Confederate uniforms were generally light grey.


      To understand the jumping-jack caricature of Jefferson Davis, a viewer would need to know who Davis was (the leader of the Confederacy) and what he looked like.


      A viewer would also have to be familiar with popular depictions of lynchings to fully appreciate the dark politics implied in the seemingly cheerful scene.

    3. Who do you think is the intended audience for this illustration? What can the illustration tell you about this audience?

      “Santa Claus in Camp” is the cover to a popular news magazine, Harper’s Weekly. Subscribers to Harper’s were Nast’s primary audience. The cover was also designed to attract audiences that did not yet subscribe to Harper’s—readers who might be intrigued by the cover and buy the magazine from the newsstand.


      The Harper’s masthead (where the magazine’s title appears) offers many clues about the people who produced and read the magazine. In the center of the masthead is a torch seemingly passed from a heavenly being to a person. Harper’s identifies itself as “a journal of civilization,” and its masthead is illustrated by many symbols associated with an intelligent, well-read, well-rounded person: a lute, color palette, and inkwell on one side (representing the arts) and a globe, open book, and telescope on the other (representing the sciences). The Harper’s masthead also identifies where the magazine is published: New York.


      The illustration itself clearly supports the Union side in the Civil War—Santa Claus is giving gifts to U.S. troops and playing at lynching the president of the Confederacy.


      Taken together, the intended audience for this illustration was probably composed of people who considered themselves elite, confident, well-educated, well-informed Union supporters in the North.

    4. Harold Holzer, a historian and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, says that political cartoons of the Civil War had the “most impact and least staying power of any art form of the time.” How do you think “Santa Claus in Camp” had an impact on Civil War audiences? How has that impact been lost in the 140 years since it was published? What do you think is the most lasting impact of the illustration?


      “Santa Claus in Camp” was very popular with Civil War-era Harper’s readers, and Nast produced Christmas covers for the magazine for another 20 years. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself was allegedly pleased with the illustration, and many viewers thought it provided moral support for Union troops while discouraging any Confederate supporters who might see it.


      Political cartoons like “Santa Claus at Camp” were designed to be short-lasting. Harper’s Weekly, for instance, was published every seven days, and newer political news quickly displaced the earlier stories.


      As direct knowledge about the Civil War has faded, some aspects of the cartoon are only recognizable to scholars or Civil War specialists. Many viewers are not able to immediately recognize a Union uniform or a photograph of Jefferson Davis, much less a caricature.


      The most lasting impact of the illustration has absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War, of course. This is one of the earliest depictions of the familiar version of Santa Claus, and probably the first one with him on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. (A Nast drawing of Santa from the 1850s showed Santa on a sleigh pulled by . . . turkeys, a depiction that lasted into the 20th century. Other earlier depictions had Santa riding a goat.)

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    delve Verb

    to research or investigate thoroughly.

    depict Verb

    to illustrate or show.

    familiar Adjective


    political cartoon Noun

    comic illustration or series of illustrations having to do with a political or historic event. Also called an editorial cartoon.

    significance Noun


    tradition Noun

    beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.

    troop Noun

    a soldier.

    Union Adjective

    having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.

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