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.
What clues in the illustration tell the viewer that Santa Claus is visiting a Union, not Confederate, camp?
What prior knowledge would a viewer need to decipher some of these clues?
Who do you think is the intended audience for this illustration? What can the illustration tell you about this audience?
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?
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry delve Verb
to research or investigate thoroughly.
to illustrate or show.
political cartoon Noun
comic illustration or series of illustrations having to do with a political or historic event. Also called an editorial cartoon.
beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.
having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.