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History Matters: The day Thomas Nast's historical Santa Claus came to town

Donder and Blitzen (German for “thunder” and “lightning”) first made their appearance in 1823, springing from the pen of Clement Clarke Moore in his classic poem “The Night before Christmas.” Up until that time Americans were pretty hazy regarding Santa Claus, the patron saint of Christmas. Moore would help define him as a sack-bearing, chimney-climbing gift-giver, a reindeer-powered sleigh operator, an overweight and jolly sojourner from the northlands and, despite Moore’s personal distaste for tobacco, a pipe-smoking, wreath-encircled bearer of goodwill.

It would take a later contribution during the trying time of America’s Civil War to put the finishing touches on Santa’s image.

Thomas Nast was born in 1840 in Germany but moved to New York with his family in 1846. Unable to speak English early on and never learning to read or write well despite some early schooling, his prospects for gainful employment in his adopted land appeared quite remote. Physically he was described as short and stocky, but despite any limitations, Thomas had shown an early talent for drawing.

At age 15, he somehow mustered enough courage to walk by the receptionist’s desk and into the New York city office of the famous Frank Leslie, requesting a job as an illustrator. Originally laughed at, he was given the seemingly impossible task of going down to the Manhattan wharf and drawing all the people there at rush hour. The young boy eagerly embraced the assignment and completed the picture by the next day. Young Thomas Nast was hired as an illustrator by Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for four dollars a week, beginning a successful career that would span many decades.

It was during America’s Civil War that Thomas Nast came into prominence as America’s foremost cartoonist and illustrator. Physically unfit for military service, he became a war correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, and his drawings of battles and conditions at the front soon began to reach into many American homes.

In appreciation of his war effort, President Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed the young Nast to be “our best recruiting sergeant.”

It was an illustration titled “Santa Claus Comes in Camp” where Nast first prominently used the image of Santa Claus. For inspiration he had his wife Sarah read him the Clement Clarke Moore poem before beginning the work. Nast would go on to create some 76 Christmas drawings over his lifetime and, in the process, help to define Santa Claus as we know him today.

From Nast’s work came the concept of Santa being from the North Pole (thus being a citizen of the world, not from any specific country), the idea of a workshop staffed by small elves and letters to be sent to Santa making requests and gifts being given exclusively to those children who had been good the previous year. Santa’s outfit was depicted as red-and-white striped trousers and a blue coat splashed with white stars. A smallish funnel-shaped fur cap would sit atop his patriotic head.

It was this specific image created by Thomas Nast for the Christmas of 1862 that would capture the heart of well-known Civil War reenactor Wilber D. (Willi) Runk.

Willi Runk was a born teacher and taught not only for a living, but also as a personal passion in his spare time. Until his retirement he taught history at the Talcott Mountain Academy in Avon, but also spent much of his spare time in “the hobby” (as it is often called) of historic reenacting.

Willi started out doing Revolutionary War portrayals in the early 1990s as a Hessian officer but after a while he and his wife Becky began Civil War-era reenacting, playing the part of a surgeon and later a union captain.

Each role was carefully scripted with typical Willi Runk attention to historical detail ... the clothing, the voice, the overall demeanor of the one being portrayed. He might be found at Gettysburg giving orders to his troops or at another Civil War reenacting site perhaps commanding the cannons to fire, all high drama.

Willi later joined “The Society of Europe,” an umbrella organization for all portrayals, and began to do more civilian impressions of the time. He portrayed a Prussian ambassador to the U.S. for many years but then he stumbled on, of all people, Santa Claus.

For those who are familiar with the Smith-Harris House, East Lyme’s mid-19th century museum (recently renamed “Brookside Farms”) it always has had a certain magic about it, especially during the holiday season. Willi Runk sensed that right away. Numerous times over the years while doing impressions there for Heritage Weekend or other events, he would comment on the feel of the place and would often say that of all the historical sites he had visited or performed at, this was his absolute favorite. It just felt like “home,” he said.

“I remember many conversations Willi and I had over the years,” Georgia Lee Littlefield, architect of many of the Smith-Harris House historical programs offered. “Willi would often comment on the attention to detail we gave the place, and that was high praise coming from someone of his historic stature. One day we were talking about our Christmas program, and I remember saying it was too bad we did not have an accurate period-correct Santa to offer the public. Willi said he would give that some thought and research and get back to me in the near future. It might be a way, he said in parting, for him to bring history to the little ones.”

After a year of research and after crafting both the proper historical demeanor and suitable patriotic clothing, Thomas Nast’s Civil War Santa’s recreation was complete. Jolly Old St. Nicholas was back in town.

“Happy Christmas!” greeted many a holiday visitor as they entered the house. Children would crowd in around him, some sitting on the floor while others vied to sit upon his lap. Cookies and tea were placed on the table beside him. Nibbling on them from time to time and sipping at his tea, the story of Christmas and the historic Santa Claus began to unfold.

Everyone in attendance, both young and old, were captivated by this reenactor’s knowledge and his warm delivery.

“Mall Santas can be frightening to some children,” Mrs. Littlefield related, “but I never once saw any child do anything but gravitate towards our Santa. It was a tribute to Willi Runk’s skill and who he really was as a person.”

After playing the role of Santa Claus for several years, Wilber D. “Willi” Runk would tragically die of a heart attack at age 65 on Aug. 30, 2012.

Postscript: Willi always had his pipe with him whenever he played Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus at the local museum, but he would never light it up when the “little ones” were about.

Afterwards, however, still very much in character, he could often be spotted contentedly smoking that pipe as he sat by himself in a comfortable rocking chair out on the front porch.

There are many who remember that quiet scene with some even claiming to see the smoke from his pipe begin to curl in the oddest sort of way over his bespectacled head. “Almost like a wreath,” one of them reportedly said.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.



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