If you thought that Santa only cared about making children happy everywhere, there's one facet of Santa's personal history you might not know: During the Civil War, old St. Nick was an abolitionist. Find out more about the politics of St. Nick on Saturday when a Civil War Santa reenactor comes to the National Museum of Civil Was Medicine in Frederick, Md.
Santa Claus as we know him -- jolly and fat -- is an invention of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Nast -- also responsible for the popularization of the Democrats' donkey and the Republicans' elephant -- created this St. Nick for Harper's Weekly, in a 1863 image of Santa handing out gifts in a Union Civil War camp. This Santa was chubby, patriotic and anti-slavery -- a 1997 New Yorker article describes how Nast made this Santa a cheerful symbol of the Unionist cause, and a tool for improving the North's morale.
Frederick's Civil War Santa is presumably also pro-Union -- he's James Tent, a Holocaust scholar and former history professor who is now a docent at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Tent will be wearing the Civil War version of Santa's suit -- a patriotic-looking blue coat with white stars on it over red and white striped pants. (The Frederick News-Post reports that Tent's wife spent five days making his costume.)
The all-red suit that Santa now wears is often, but wrongly, attributed to some Coca-Cola ads from the 1930s. You can see in the slides below that Santa was no longer wearing flag-like outfits well before the 1930s, but no one is quite sure when his outfit changed. Perhaps you can engage Tent the historian on this question on Saturday as well as getting your photo taken asking him for an iPad.
Civil War Santa is part of Frederick's "Museums by Candlelight" program, running at various locations on Saturday from noon to 7 p.m.
Santa will be in the Delaplaine-Randall room at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (48 East Patrick St., Frederick, Md.) from noon to 4 p.m. and again from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.