The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus in the 1860s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In a previous post, we saw some rare late 1840s images of Santa Claus, whose visibility and popularity then was nowhere what it would become in subsequent decades.  For that matter, Christmas was not quite the holiday it would develop into, either.

Today’s post looks at how much Santa Claus evolved over the next twenty years, just as the holiday took on more significance, observance, and interest.

The first image, from the 3 January 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, and is titled “Santa Claus’s Ball”.  The name of the artist is not given, though the cover, which the museum doesn’t have in its collection, happens to contain the first image of Santa drawn by Thomas Nast, who would go on to literally define the appearance of the modern St. Nick.

The illustration accompanied a short story of the same name about Santa’s November dress rehearsal at a winter palace “an immense snow-cave in the side of Mount Hecla” which he chose because he “found the climate to agree better with his health than a more southern situation” (a curious reversal of what most of us would do!)

The rehearsal was also a chance for Santa “to hear from his spies, the Old Dolls” already delivered as gifts to children and who would report on how well the kids behaved in the past year so Santa could size up what to give them for the current year.  Accordingly, he “had dispatched his numerous reindeer teams over the American continent to collect his guests” and even had a back-up plan in “several Lapland witches [who] had benevolently loaned their broomsticks for the use of such of the company who might prefer them.”

The illustration from “Santa Claus’s Ball,” a short story which appeared in the 3 January 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly which comes from the Homestead’s collection.  Much of the story focused on the children of soldiers fighting in the Civil War.


In hearing reports from his spies, much of what reported fell into three general forms of complaints.  One was the effects on children of having absent fathers fighting in the horrors of the Civil War and of having mothers who were either busy with war-related volunteers causes, like aid societies.  Another was having parents who had their children were “overstudied” with days spent at school and evenings in other forms of education afterward.  Finally, there were those, especially mothers, including those whose husbands were in the service, who were absent.

This latter left “many nurseries unblessed by the constant presence of a mother.”  This was because “society—gay, bewitching, fascinating society—claimed so many, especially young mothers,” who would rather leave their children “to the exclusive care of either Biddy or Dinah,” these stereotypical names referencing blacks hired as “mammies” to white children.  The passage is an enlightening one concerning the racial views of the period, as well as about how children were, in some well-to-do households at least, being raised.

As for the children of soldiers, Santa reflected upon these men who “were his especial care.  Many a box of comforts and delicacies had he conveyed to them.”  Consequently, he “resolved that the children of soldiers, either absent or killed, should fare especially well, and their stocking well filled by hook or crooks, and he re-resolved that within the circle of his influence all faces should be bright and happy.”

There were other observances and complaints from the spy dolls and, at the end of the evening, Santa addressed them and “assured the Dolls that he would attend to their grievances, and see to it that they had more of the time and attention of their little mistresses than ever before.”  He reaffirmed his intent “that a flea should be judiciously inserted into the ears to the mothers, to the intent that their assistance and co-operation should be lent to further his plans for a merry Christmas.”

Again, for the children of troops “the children and orphans of soldiers were under his especial care” and he intended the dolls “were placed where they would do the most good to the children.”

With the evening over, the story ended as Santa “went in, lighted his pipe, and sat down to cogitate before his fire till morning.  Then he concluded than an account of his ball had better be sent to Harper’s Weekly, and see if a plea for the Children could not be made through its pages.”

The museum also has the 28 December 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which contains this illustration of Santa in the bedchamber of a pair of slumbering siblings.


The second Santa image is from the same publication and its issue of 28 December 1867, two-and-a-half years after the end of the war and with no mention of it made.  In fact, the reference on the front page of the paper to the image is that he has come down the chimney of a house and “scrambled down into the chamber.  He has just taken one glance at the sleeping faces there, and has read exactly the wish written on each—and pat into the stockings go the answers.”

The tidbit went on to say that some children have so many presents they want that the old fellow’s “face becomes a tangled scrawl, and old Santa drops his pack in amazement . . .”  But the account concluded with the observation that “he deciphers the most important parts of the scrawl, and does his best, so far as the stocking allows.”

This issue of Harper’s Weekly has several excellent images relating to Christmas, including one by famed artist Gustave Doré of the three wise men; one of startled parents prematurely awakened by their celebrating children playing with their new toys; one of three siblings awakening to a table top tree laden with lighted candles and ornaments; and more.  We’ll save some of these for future holiday posts, whether this year or in future years!

Speaking of which, check back with us as we show more images of how Santa evolved over time!

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