Although he could not read or write, Thomas Nast is a perfect example of the importance of knowing our heritage and just how many legacies one person can leave behind. Thomas Nast, through his wood engravings, helped to shape customs not only in America but also throughout the world.
Thomas Nast is best known for his Christmas drawings. His first drawing appeared in Harper's Weekly for Christmas of 1862, marking the first appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today. Prior to this, Santa had passed through a series of stages beginning with a more religious-type figure.
The inspiration for how Nast's Santa should look came from Clement Moore's poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Since Nast could not read, he had his wife read to him while he prepared his drawings and engravings. On one occasion, Mrs. Nast read Clement Moore's poem to Thomas. That was all it took for inspiration.
The next 24 years saw Nast produce 76 Christmas engravings that were signed and published. Nast used Moore's poem to put it all together in visual form - a sleigh, reindeer, jolly old elf, filling the stockings hung by the chimney, and so forth.
In addition, Nast used his own imagination to expand upon the theme. He was the first to establish that Santa's home was in the North Pole. In this way, Santa didn't belong to any one country - he became a citizen of the world. The concept of Santa having a workshop and elves to help him was also Nast's idea. Prior to his engravings, all children received gifts from Santa. Nast conceived the idea that bad children didn't get gifts from Santa. The custom of sending Santa a letter is also due to Thomas Nast. Although the custom of kissing under mistletoe was known in Europe prior to Nast's engravings, it was through his engravings in America that the custom caught on there.
Thomas Nast brought Christmas to a large audience through his engravings. The result of the impact that these drawings had on Americans is astronomical. In Europe, Christmas was observed for centuries on December 6. By the late 1800's when Nast's Santa Claus gained popularity, Christmas Day was legally established as December 25 in all states and territories in the United States. In addition, an extended school vacation during this period became a custom. (A brief pause while all students write a thank you note to the Nast estate.)
From this seed, Christmas began the move to commercial and economic interests. Stores began including drawings of Santa (though not necessarily done by Nast) in their ads and tying it in with Christmas sales and promotions. Soon to follow was the custom of sending Christmas cards. Without Nast and the Christmas drawings that he brought to the masses, it is hard to tell what Christmas and the customs that go with it would be like today.