HistoryBuff.com December 2009 Newsletter
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The Man Who Created Santa
As We Know Him Today

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. Still lacking reading skills, 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.

Origins of Christmas Customs

Christmas Cards

The custom of sending Christmas cards started in the United Kingdom in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas cards, and with his friend John Horsley who was an artist, they designed the first card. As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. Snow scenes were also popular.

In the 1910s and 1920s, homemade cards became popular. They were often unusual shapes and had things such as foil and ribbon on them. These were usually too delicate to send through the post and were given by hand.

Nowadays, cards have all sorts of pictures on them: jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times. Charities often sell their own Christmas cards as a way of raising money at Christmas.

Charities also make money from seals or stickers used to seal the card envelopes. This custom started in Denmark in the early 1900s by a postal worker who thought it would be a good way for charities to raise money, as well as making the cards more decorative. It was a great success: over four million were sold in the first year! Soon Sweden and Norway adopted the custom and then it spread all over Europe and to America.

Why December 25th?

No one is quite sure why Christmas Day is celebrated on the 25th of December. It is probably because the Winter Solstice took place in December. The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens between December 22nd and December 25th. To pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming. They had a festival to celebrate it and worshipped the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Christmas was first celebrated as a proper day in the 4th century, the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). He first bought the Roman pagan 'sun-day' (the first day of the week) and the 'sabbath' (the Christians holy day) together to what we now call Sunday.

The name 'Christmas' comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (it is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The 'Christ-Mass' service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset, so people had it at Midnight! The word Christmas derives from the midnight Christ Mass observed by Roman Catholics.


Mistletoe is a plant that grows on willow and apple trees. The practice of hanging mistletoe in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of friendship and that is where the custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from!

The custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from England. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!


The poinsettia was made widely known because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett (why we call them Ponsettia!). He was the first Ambassador from the U.S.A. to Mexico in 1825. Mr. Poinsett also founded the scientific institution in the United States called the Smithsonian Institute. Poinsett had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taxco area in Mexico in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.

Saint Nicholas

Yes! There was a real Saint Nicholas! He was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.

The most famous story about St. Nicholas goes like this:

There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn't get married. (A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride's parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today.) One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house. The oldest daughter was then able to be married. This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas. Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a Saint.

How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus

In the 16th Century in Europe, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became very unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in the United Kingdom, he became Father Christmas, a character from old children's stories; in France, he was then known as Pre Nel; in Germany, the Christ Child or Christ Kind. In the early U.S.A. his name was Kris Kringle. Later, Dutch settlers in the United States took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became Sinter Klass or as we now say Santa Claus!

Saint Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories. In the new stories and pictures about him, his Bishop's robes soon became the hat and coat that he wears today.

No one knows how St. Nicholas' traditional white horse became a sleigh and pack of reindeer. A picture in a Victorian book show them: and the poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,' written in 1882, by Doctor Clement Clarke Moore for his children, describes the eight reindeer and gives them their names.

Thomas Nast was a leading illustrator in America from the 1860's to the early 1900's. He is perhaps most famous for his Christmas illustrations. It is Nast that dressed him in the coat and hat with fur trim that we know today. He also originated the concept that Santa Claus lived in the North Pole - this way Santa would be a citizen of the world rather than belonging to one country.

Christmas Trees

The evergreen fir tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as it made them think of the spring to come. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.

In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and gold-covered apples. Then glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today. At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time, it changed to an angel that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the Wisemen saw.

In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. Because of the danger of fire, in 1895 Ralph Morris invented the electric Christmas lights similar to the ones we use today but larger.

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November Contest

CONTEST ONE QUESTION: Which United States President is the most responsbile for having an interstate highway system of freeways built?

ANSWER: Dwight Eisenhower

CONTEST TWO QUESTION: Which president weighed the most?

ANSWER: William Howard Taft

One-hundred-seven people entered. Forty-one people had errors in their entry. Most of the errors had either the incorrect subject heading or failure to pick a prize if they won. Several people answered both questions in the same email. All prizes were awarded.

The November Contest Winners Were:
  • Joseph J. Zywicki, Jr. - Pennsylvania
  • Victor B Hollowell - North Carolina
  • Jeff Kaufman - New York
  • Mike Spezia - Washington
  • Rod Zimmerman - California
  • Tim Driscoll - West Virginia

This Issue's Questions:

To enter Contest One, answer the question: There are at least two different versions of the origination of the term "Black Friday" to mean shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. Give ONE of these versions and NOT BOTH.

To enter Contest Two, answer the question: Who was the first person to give Santa's reindeer names?

Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Thursday, December 17, 2009. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 48 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • To enter Contest One or Contest Two, email your answer to curator at historyreference.org

  • To enter Contest One, use "Contest One Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest One question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • To enter Contest Two, use "Contest Two Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest Two question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but only win one prize.

  • If entering both contests, entries must be sent in separate emails.

  • Each entry MUST select ONE prize from the appropriate prize list.

  • If answering the Contest Two question, select your prize from the Contest Two prize list.

  • From subscribers entering the contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE contest prize they want to win, NINE will be selected to win ONE of the contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.
December Contest One Prize

4-Disk DVD Set

The Great Indian Wars
5-Part Documentary Series

December Contest Two Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)


A Place to Grow
Staring Wilford Brimley


Howdy Doody
1950s Children's TV Series

Original Historic Newspapers

Original Daily Evening Transcript (Boston) historic newspaper from 1839

The Daily Atlas historic newspaper from 1867

Original Coldwater Republican historic newspaper from 1876
That's it for this issue.

Rick Brown

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