- εικόνα εξωφύλλου: Smithsonian.com
It may seem odd that Santa is smoking and touching his nose in this illustration from an 1888 version of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later called “The Night Before Christmas.” But the verses of Moore’s poem, first published in 1822, mention both habits. “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,” writes Moore. In a later stanza, he adds, “And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!”
Moore borrowed these traits from an earlier description. Washington Irving wrote about St. Nicholas smoking a clay pipe and “laying his finger beside his nose” to magically disappear in A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty in 1809.
The lighting, cast from below, gives this vintage Christmas postcard an eerie feel. With a feather or quill pen to his nose, Santa appears to be plotting something. Or is he simply checking things twice?
The Smithsonian Institution Libraries has a rare, 1883 edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” with intricate illustrations by artists William T. Smedley, Frederic B. Schell, Alfred Fredericks and Henry R. Poore. Below this particular wood engraving, the text reads, “His eyes: how they twinkled! his dimples: how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.”
This scowling Santa with deep-set eyes appeared on the cover of Black and White magazine, which from 1889 to 1912 included engravings and sketches amidst its weekly coverage of politics, literature and science.
In 1912, Will Crawford, who would later illustrate Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, created a rather startling cover for an issue of Puck magazine, a publication started by a cartoonist in 1876. Titled “Hands up!” and captioned “As Santa Claus looks to some of us,” his design depicts Santa, left eye closed, right eyebrow arched and pointing a handgun directly at the viewer.
This circa 1900 illustration of Father Christmas peering over the headboard of a bed where two children are opening presents adds a layer of creepiness to this verse of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”
In this illustration from the late 19th century, Santa forgoes his sleigh and rides a reindeer. Something about it is unsettling.
In December 2000, Warrington Colescott gave fellow Wisconsin printmaker Ray Gloeckler a Christmas card with this monstrous Santa Claus on it. The etching or drawing, now in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, shows Santa with a serrated smile, long fingernails and a rat peering out of his beard.
This sketch of a blitzed Santa Claus made by Edward Virginius Valentine sometime between 1911 and 1930 stands in great contrast to the stately bronze and marble statues of figures such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson that the artist is better known for. The Archives of American Art acquired it along with other records from Milch Gallery, a now defunct New York City establishment once owned by brothers Edward and Albert Milch.
Hungarian-born artist Ralph Fabri gave this frightening print of Santa sitting on an asteroid, fist under chin, like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” to his friend Dale Pontius for Christmas in 1939. Looking down at a fiery Earth, Santa doesn’t seem to be thinking happy thoughts. Fabri signed the print “with apologies to Rodin.”
Artist Robert Walter Weir’s 1838 oil painting “St. Nicholas” is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections. “Weir’s Nicholas, with an impish gleam in his eye, resembles a classic trickster as much as a jolly gift-giver,” writes Owen Edwards in “A Mischievous St. Nick from the American Art Museum.” “He may be poised to fill stockings with toys and goodies—but he also looks as if he could be making off with the family silver.”
It is clear that this illustration, which appeared in a 1940s edition of Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” took cues from Robert Walter Weir’s “St. Nicholas.” In both, Santa is beardless. He has a pipe fastened to his hood, and he is peering over his shoulder and touching his nose. Even the fireplace tools are similarly positioned. “He just isn’t the jolly, old guy that we know today,” says Jim Morrison, founder and historian at the National Christmas Center near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
American cartoonist Thomas Nast is largely to credit for the modern image of Santa Claus. For a few decades, beginning in the 1860s, he drew a roly-poly gift giver with a white beard, rosy cheeks and a red suit. But this engraving by the artist T.C. Boyd, which was featured in an 1848 edition of “The Night Before Christmas,” shows a very “Dutchified” Santa with knickers and a fur trapper’s hat.
By an artist named S. Merinsky, this “Santa Claus” lithograph from 1872 portrays a droopy-eyed Santa schlepping a tangled mass of loot. A black cat lurking near the chimney adds to the illustration’s dark vibe.
In this image—one of ten included in a short storybook from the 1870s about holiday balls hosted in New York—a soot-covered Santa Claus waves switches at children, perhaps threatening to whip them if they behave badly. One of the young girls may even be crying; she has her eyes covered. Rather frighteningly, the caption reads, “I am coming little children.”
Santa’s nonchalance on this 1870s trade card, measuring about four inches by two and a half inches, is a bit disconcerting. With all the houses he needs to get to, does he have the time to kick up a heel?
The story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by a catalog writer at a Montgomery Ward department store and distributed in a souvenir book to kids visiting the store during the 1939 holiday season.
But the very first department store handout of this kind probably came from a John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. In 1878, the store gave out a booklet called “Christmas Chimes and New Year Greetings,” with this bug-eyed Santa on its cover. He looks about as scared of us as we are of him.