In 1881 editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast helped create the image of Santa Claus with this illustration, now an icon of popular imagery re-fashioned and re-created into many different images of Santa:
Nast was the most politically influential cartoonist of the 19th century, lambasting New York’s corrupt Tweed Ring and Boss Tweed and inventing the elephant symbol of the GOP. But for all his popular success, Nast also had a dark side, publishing xenophobic cartoons against Irish immigrants who were arriving in NYC in waves to escape famine and poverty and other cartoons expressing his disdain for the growing Catholic influence. Nast is an example in American history of how religious intolerance and immigration xenophobia can come together in a toxic mix…not the sort of stuff any real Santa would buy into.
So I’d rather vest the Real Santa honors with Norman Rockwell, America’s greatest illustrator, the creator of the Four Freedoms, one of which depicts the Constitutional freedom to exercise (or not) religion as the individual conscience sees fit.
I saw the original painting of this Post cover by Rockwell in a museum exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute, noting on a close look at the original that Rockwell put actual strands of fake Santa hair in the pigment to highlight his painting.
Rockwell’s Santa, even when unmasked, was the generous soul.