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Fat and Savvy

Thomas Nast, the father of American political cartooning, popularized images of Americana such as Uncle Sam and skewered corrupt politicians. His drawings were so influential, in fact, that they helped bring down the infamous New York City politician William "Boss" Tweed, who defrauded the city of millions during the 1860s.

But for all of his scathing political commentary, Nast had a softer side, too, and it was one of his nonpolitical creations that will perhaps endure the longest. According to Stephen Charla, assistant curator of the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Nast created the template for the popular image of Santa Claus. "Nast gave Santa his workshop and decided that he live at the North Pole," Charla notes. "Before Nast there was really no definitive image of Santa, and traditionally he was depicted as a thin, austere saint. Nast was one of the first to fatten him up."

Nast made a name for himself by illustrating Civil War battlefield scenes for Harper's Weekly during the 1860s. In one drawing, Union troops are seen receiving Christmas gifts from a character inspired in part by Clement C. Moore's famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" ("'Twas the night before Christmas..."). That first drawing of Santa Claus and Christmas cartoons by other artists are included in the museum's exhibition "A Holiday Cartoon Celebration," which also features Hanukkah and Kwanzaa illustrations.

"As Santa enters the 20th Century, he becomes more and more of an advertising icon, and commercial artists start to have an influence on the way he looks," Charla explains.

But by the mid-1940s, cartoonist Will Eisner was reminding folks that Christmas was not a Madison Avenue creation. "It seems to me Christmas is a magical thing," he wrote in the first installment of The Christmas Spirit, an annual series of illustrated tales. "These are stories for the season," he added, "when for a fleeting moment, humankind unites in a mighty surge of compassion and miracles can occur."

Eisner's holiday series, which debuted in 1947, was a spin-off of his popular detective-superhero comic, The Spirit. The seven-page volume included in the exhibit features a disheveled, homeless Santa accepting a small boy's last piece of bread. Of course, Santa returns the favor by making the boy's wishes come true.

Fifty-one years later, Eisner will be on hand to discuss the spiritual and commercial implications of Santa Claus during a panel discussion titled "A Not-So-Commercial Santa" at 3 p.m. December 6. Perhaps one of the issues he'll address is the commercial implications of The Christmas Spirit series itself. Eisner's books will be for sale, and he'll sign copies after the discussion ends.

The late Nast, of course, won't be there, but many of his drawings will. For the most part, they focus on the whimsical interaction between Santa Claus and children. Christmas Drawings For the Human Race (1890), a compilation of more than 30 years' worth of Nast's illustrations for Harper's, is filled with images of mistletoe, stacks of children's toys under trees, and the rotund St. Nick. "The Watch on Christmas Eve" (1876) depicts two young children anxiously awaiting Santa's arrival.

Most fitting of all, however, is "Another Stocking to Fill" (1880), in which Santa peers into a baby's crib. "Santa" is actually Nast, who'd evidently decided that it was time to throw a self-portrait into the holiday mix.

-- Chuck Mason

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Chuck Mason

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