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All over the world Santa Claus is possibly the most easily recognized fictional personality. In various forms, styles and dress this old saint has been around for thousands of years. This character has monks and rakes in his ancestry. It took the father of American political cartooning, Thomas Nast, to create the modern image of Santa Claus.

“The pen is mightier than the sword”, said novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Never has this adage been truer than in the work of artist Thomas Nast. Nast’s caricatures following the Civil War had a great impact on American culture and history.

Though he is practically unknown today, he was responsible for creating many American icons. Besides making a loveable Santa Claus, his scratchings popularized the Republican Party elephant and Democratic Party donkey. Uncle Sam as we know him today and Columbia are also his inspiration.

He was a Harper’s Weekly correspondent during the Civil War, encouraging the boys in blue and sending back drawings of the war. By 1873, Nast was a celebrity after his successful campaign against New York City’s infamously corrupt Tweed Ring. (Here’s a prayer for brave political cartoonists: Flush out the other corrupt politicians like the Illinois and New York governors.)

In Nast’s Harper’s Weekly cartoons he exposed what everybody else knew or suspected about the political party head known as Boss Tweed. He created the “Tammany tiger” to express Tweed’s power in New York City.

Nast campaigned for justice in all forms of endeavor. He was like Will Rogers in his regard for political bureaucrats.

 

When the father of American political cartooning retired at the turn of the century, a newspaper correspondent wrote: “The pressures of the great issues of the Civil War raised up a Lincoln, a Grant and a Nast. Lincoln broad in love, firm in purpose; Grant brave and unyielding; Nast an inspired artist to encourage the hearts of the rulers and the soldiers of the people.”

 

Today a number of political cartoonists come from the Nast heritage.

For a 20th-century political cartoonist, none matches Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo. This long-running (1948-75) daily comic strip was filled with social and political satire. It was so well written that the strips could often be enjoyed by young children and “savvy” adults. Favorite characters were Albert the Alligator, Churchy La Femme and a wise old owl.

Kelly’s most famous phrase is, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”—a rallying cry for a generation of conservationists.

Pogo’s animal friend’s predominant language could be called “swamp-speak”—a rural, Southern American dialect. He was never better than when twisting a well-known song like the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls.”

There are at least three versions of this famous Walt Kelly Christmas carol. I like the following version:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash, and Kalamazoo!

Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,

Swaller dollar cauliflower Alleygaroo!

Don’t we know archaic barrel,

Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou.

Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,

Boola Boola Pensacoola Hullabaloo!

I am famous for my inability to sing anything. That was the case for many years. Then I discovered Walt Kelly’s take on songs. When I sing this one, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie,” the audience rolls its eyes in amazement. Believe it or not.

 

And with that, our house wishes your house a very Merry Christmas in this 2008 Year of our Lord.

Britt Towery is the former Asian Studies director at BaylorUniversity. See more of his writing at www.towerytales.blogspot.com.

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