A Visit from St. Nick

By Christmas 1864, America was still in the throes of the Civil War, with little hope for the South as William T. Sherman overtook Savannah, and began to make his march through the Carolinas, wreaking havoc and leaving devastation where he passed through.  Christmas in the South was a dismal affair, but the North prospered, creating many of the traditions still around today.

Prior to the late 1860s and early 1870s, sending Christmas cards was a non-existent tradition in America, but was gaining popularity in the UK (the first Christmas card was created by Sir Henry Cole and John Horsley in 1843).

Cole and Horsley's Christmas card, 1843.

Cole and Horsley’s Christmas card, 1843.

In the US, Louis Prang is credited with kicking off the Christmas card industry, with his first card published in 1856.  In 1864, Prang  created a card utilizing the infamous poem ‘The Night Before Christmas.’  Attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem was published anonymously in 1823, but in 1837, Moore declared ownership, placing his name in history.


StNick_1Stnick_2Louis Prang's 'A Visit From St. Nick,' published in 1864.  Images courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Library.Louis Prang’s ‘A Visit From St. Nick,’ published in 1864. Images courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Library.

The original illustrator of Prang’s card is unknown.  Some attribute it to Thomas Nast, who in 1863 created an image of a robust and bearded Santa Claus for the cover of Harper’s Weekly.  Nast’s image placed the ideology of Santa firmly in American’s minds, and he subsequently created several illustrations of a jolly St. Nick.

Thomas Nast's cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863.

Thomas Nast’s cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863.

As I mentioned earlier, Nast is often attributed to illustrating Prang’s card, but the images are so starkly different (not to mention the Santa in Prang’s card looks a little maniacal and somewhat creepy in some instances) from Nast’s other images of Santa.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Denver Public Library.

Thoma Nast’s Santa Claus, c. 1889.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Denver Public Library.

The Victorian idea of Christmas cards took root in the US in the 1870s and 1880s, but I think Prang’s card is a great early example of the artistry and the craftsmanship expected of cards throughout the next several decades.

If you’re curious about how Varina and Jefferson Davis passed their last Christmas in the Confederate White House, see my post at Emerging Civil War!  And a very Happy Christmas Eve to everyone!


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Filed under 1870s, Letters

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