I do love Santa.
And I know a little about him; but when I looked closely at this wood engraving of the man hard at work something struck me as very unusual to my Santa experience.
The image is from 31 December 1871--coming after Christmas for some reason--and it is one of the very earliest depictions of the most universally recognized form of Santa. It was created (his image that is, of course) by the incredibly prolific and almost-entirely socially responsible (except for Catholics and the Irish) Thomas Nast. Nast created this standard, iconic image of Santa--plus the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, the Tammany tiger, and many more iconic public images.
In fairly famous and often used images I had never noticed that the letters that Santa is reading are being taken from the piles on his desk--but the letters are not written by children, but rather were sent by the parents.
Is this end-of-the-year grading? Were the “naughty” children being ratted out by their parents? Does Santa really need to be told all of this? And who on earth really is deserving of a lump of coal, anyway? I'm guessing though that this was simply a warning cartoon to children, saying to them that they'd better well be good or a letter will be going out from Mom and Dad to Santa in the afternoon mail
This might make more make more sense if the cartoon wasn't published five days after Christmas but appeared before the holiday. Perhaps it is perfectly placed--tis would've been the first issue of the weekly magazine after the holiday, so reminding children to be good after a Christmas in which they might not have received what they wanted may have been caused by their behavior. And since part of Nast's social power came from depicting events that were of interest to the working class and the poor and making them intelligible to the illiterate, where the cartoon/caricature could speak without words and make themselves understood, it might've been the case where parents would show the image of Santa to the kids and then tell them about the letter part to try and codify a different behavior in the new-coming-Christmas season.
These questions aside, the lesson yet again for me is to look very closely when looking at complex images like this—especially when you think that you already know what you’re looking at...
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