Christmas Cartoons by Thomas Nast in “Harper’s Weekly,” 1863

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in the post a couple of days ago focusing on the Christmas Day 1858 edition of the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly, the publication became widely popular in following years.  This was due to a variety of reasons, two of which was its ample and notable coverage of the Civil War, which broke out a couple of years later, and the hiring of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who joined Harper’s in 1862.

Much of Nast’s work on the war was compelling and dramatic and well illustrated the publication’s reporting of and editorials on the conflict.  Long before photography was utilized in print, cartoons like those of Nast allowed readers to get a semblance of the horrors of battle and a sense of the issues that animated what still remains the deadliest war in the nation’s history and which, of course, took place on our soil and among ourselves.

A Thomas Nast-drawn cartoon on the cover of the 3 January 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly, from the Homestead’s collection, and showing a visit by Santa Claus to a Union camp in the midst of the Civil War.

During the war years, when the Christmas holiday came, Nast comingled the war and the celebration of the season is typically insightful and visually arresting fashion.  This is certainly the case with the images included in this post which come from the poles of the year 1863.  In other words, one appeared in the 3 January issue, reflective of the 1862 holiday, while the others are from the 26 December edition at the end of the war’s third year.

The 3 January 1863 cover image is a remarkable one showing Santa Claus in a Union Army camp (the Weekly was an ardent supporter of the Union during the war).  Seated on the edge of the rear of his sleigh with his reindeer patiently waiting, St. Nick distributes boxes with presents to soldiers, some of whom have shocked looks on their faces, perhaps because of the joy of receiving presents in the midst of such chaos experienced in the conflict.

Note the expressions on some soldiers’ faces, the gifts received, and other details in this remarkable scene.

A stocking, a jack-in-the-box, a drum, and a puppet are among the toys shown and Nast has carefully placed a few copies of Harper’s in the scene, as well.  In the distance up a steep hill, soldiers are seen at play, enjoying a brief holiday respite from the rigors of war, including races, greased pole climbing and a bonfire.

Above the reindeer and next to a large American flag fluttering in the breeze is an arch with a sign reading “Welcome Santa Claus and decorated with evergreens topped by a star.  At the top corners of the vignette are the letters “U” and “S,” an unmistakable sign of support for the Union cause.

The beginning of a short story in the 26 December 1863 issue and dealing with a visit by Santa to a prosperous merchant forgetful of the suffering and needs of the less fortunate during the season.

While the museum’s holdings only include the cover page of the 3 January edition of the publication, we have the complete issue from 26 December.  Included among the holiday content is a work of holiday fiction, titled “Mr. Blueit’s Christmas Dinner,” concerning a visit from Santa Claus to a wealthy merchant who needed a little reminder about the less fortunate during the holidays.

There was also a “Merry Christmas” message from the publishers, who asked “ought it not to be a merry Christmas” and then answered:

Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled—ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?

The message added that the accompanying cartoons were essential to this sentiment, observing, “how well Mr. Nast has seized the spirit of the great festival in the elaborate and beautiful picture which we publish this week!”

An editorial reference to Nast’s outstanding work in the issue.

That image is truly remarkable, reflecting the 1863 Yuletide season in three panels.  At the left, titled “Eve,” is an image of Santa Claus next to the fireplace through which he entered the home peering carefully over a cradle in which two young children are deeply sleeping.  Beneath that image is a rendering of visitors visiting the Christ child in the manager.

At the right is “Morning,” depicting a scene in which children go through their stockings and play with their toys, including a doll and a horse on wheels, while a trio of adults peek from behind a partially opened doorway.  Below that is a wintry scene of families entering what may be a home or a church while a gentleman greets them while doffing his stovepipe hat.

A triptych scene of the season, including the return of a Union soldier on furlough home, demonstrates the artistry of Nast in both his Civil War imagery and his capturing of the Yuletide season.

In the center, however, is a much larger image called “Furlough,” and, naturally, showing a Union soldier returning home on the holiday to his overjoyed wife and two small children.  More adults, men with their hats off and raised, and children stand at a doorway.

A treetop Christmas tree, the standard of the day and for decades to come before taller trees stood ont the floor, and topped by an American flag complements a “Welcome Home” wreath and garland.  Toys are also scattered about the floor.  At the bottom is an image of a family enjoying a Christmas feast.

A detail of Santa peering at sleeping babes on the Christmas Eve portion of the image.

There is one other item of note from the issue: an editorial about the year-end message of President Abraham Lincoln and the editor opined that it “is the most important document ever submitted by the Executive to Congress and the country.”  Noting that Lincoln was often criticized for his oratorical style, it was answered that “he knows exactly what he means to say, and exactly how to say it.”

Moreover, the editorial went on,

when his Messages and letters are compared with those of our Chief Magistrates for many a year, their true American ring, their manly faith in human rights and the people, are as unprecedented as they are inspiring.

Much of the content dealt with Lincoln’s proposal for reconstruction once the war was over (Union supporters believed that the conflict would be short-lived and decisive when it erupted in 1861 and were dismayed to see it extend so much longer—and there was another sixteen months yet to go.)  One question was how the political rights of the South would be restored and anothr point of discussion dealt with the nature of the rebelllion as a conspiracy against the Constitution.

The Furlough scene in detail.

The editor praised the President, stating “it is his great merit that he early saw this to be a war in which the people must save themselves.”  Failing this, the experiment in popular democracy would collapse.  Lincoln’s focus on the will of the people was an essential quality “which he has divined with more sagacity than any public man in our history.”

Explaining this matter in a clear and simple way, “not as an advocate, or partisan, or fanatic,” the president employed “the same wisdom and passionles equity which has marked his official career . . . and [from the time he] set forth to undertake as vast a duty as was ever committed to man.”

The opening paragraph of an editorial lionizing the year-end message of President Abraham Lincoln.


This combination of a war that would determine the survivability of the nation with a holiday ostensibly based on the peace and love embodied in the Christian faith is particularly striking.  It comes through with even greater force in Nast’s indelible images merging conflict with celebration in an artistic way that marked his artistry during the roughly quarter-century that he worked for Harper’s Weekly.

3 thoughts

  1. I’m Having a hard time reconciling the dates of the article published, And maybe what they were considering the holiday season/Christmas. It’s stated that it’s a January 1863 issue… Which would make it December 1862… However the caption on one of the trip texts is furlough December 1863. I’m not trying to be a pain in the butt… I’m just trying to get visuals of the men of oswego who valiantly served.

  2. Hi Darah, there are two separate issues of Harper’s Weekly featured in the post. The first concerns just the cover of the 3 January 1863 issue, so refers, of course, to the 1862 Yuletide season. Then, there is the highlighting of the complete 26 December 1863 issue, including the amazing image of the soldiers’ furlough for that year’s Christmas. We hope that helps sort things out!

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