Thomas Nast, Saint and Sinner


At the time of his death in the early 20th Century Thomas Nast became known as “The Father of the American Cartoon.” Well-known as creator of the Republican and Demoocratic party symbols, the elephant and the donkey. He was credited in helping to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed.

Further, at this time of the year, he is praised as creator of the modern image of Jolly Saint Nick.

All done for Harper’s Weekly.

Harper’s Weekly wasn’t just for serious subjects: “It provided political news and commentary on national and international events, but it also offered readers sentimental fiction, humor and cultural news.” What better place for Nast to bring his meticulously detailed image of Santa to life? And so, beginning with the January 1863 drawings, Nast began to immortalize the mythic figure of Santa Claus.


Unsurprisingly, the drawings from the Civil War often fell solidly in the realm of propaganda; Nast staunchly supported abolition, civil rights and the Republicans. But even after the war ended, Nast continued to use Santa Claus to make certain pointed political statements.

Take the 1881 image known as “Merry Old Santa Claus,” probably Nast’s most famous portrait of the Christmas deity. To the casual observer, it looks like Santa, with his bag of toys, wearing his characteristic red suit. But actually, Hyman says, it’s more propaganda, this time related to the government’s indecisiveness over paying higher wages to members of the military. “On his back isn’t a sack full of toys—it’s actually an army backpack from enlisted men.” He’s holding a dress sword and belt buckle to represent the Army, whereas the toy horse is a callback to the Trojan horse, symbolizing the treachery of the government. A pocket watch showing a time of ten ’til midnight indicates the United States Senate has little time left to give fair wages to the men of the Army and Navy.



Elsewhere Thomas Nast is denounced as a bigot. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, earlier this year petitioned the Overseas Press Club to remove Nast’s name from their cartooning award:
I am writing to you as the Anti-Defamation Chairman of the Ancient Order of Hibernians regard the Overseas Press Club’s (OPC) Thomas Nast Award for Political Cartooning to respectfully request that the OPC consider renaming this prestigious award prior to soliciting nominations for 2019 rather than continuing to honor Thomas Nast, a well-documented bigot … there can be no disputing Thomas Nast’s anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudices with his numerous depictions of Irish immigrants as violent apes and Catholic Bishops as crocodiles.

The OPC Board of Governors also has decided to make a change to the OPC’s award for best cartoons on international affairs. Since 1978, the award has been named for Thomas Nast, an influential American cartoonist in the 19th century. However, Nast’s legacy includes cartoons that exhibited an ugly bias against immigrants, the Irish and Catholics.

“The Board had a thoughtful and robust conversation regarding the issues brought to light regarding some of Thomas Nast’s editorial cartoons,” said OPC President Pancho Bernasconi. “Once we became aware of how some groups and ethnicities were portrayed in a manner that is not consistent with how journalists work and view their role today, we voted to remove his name from the award.”


The Thomas Nast Award is now “The Best Cartoon Award.” The only award without a name attached.

09. The Peter Jennings Award
Best TV, video or documentary about international affairs with a run time over 30 minutes.

10. The Ed Cunningham Award
Best magazine-style, long-form narrative feature in print or digital on an international story.

11. The Best Cartoon Award
Best print or digital graphic journalism, including cartoons, on international affairs.

12. The Morton Frank Award
Best international business news reporting in TV, video, radio, audio or podcast.

13. The Malcolm Forbes Award
Best international business news reporting in newspapers, news services, magazines or digital.


As a note to cartoonists the ENTRY DEADLINE is 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on January 30, 2019.





One thought on “Thomas Nast, Saint and Sinner

  1. Nast is a complicated figure in this regard. As a Catholic myself and the grandson of an Italian immigrant, I’m fairly aware of Nast’s proclivities in this regard. I’m still sorting through it all, and I don’t know how it would be “resolved,” but I’m also not in favor of removing his name from the awards. I think his contributions outweigh his shortcomings. I know people of good will can strenuously disagree with me on this point and I do not pretend to offer a resolution, but Nast will always be a hero to me, a hero, but certainly not a god.

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