Rhineland-Pfalz’s connection to Santa Claus

Rhineland-Pfalz’s connection to Santa Claus

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

What does the German state many U.S. military members call home have to do with jolly old Saint Nick? The connection between the Rhineland-Palatinate and the popular image of Santa Claus is a fitting tale as we count off the days until Christmas.

The Palatinate, or Pfalz as it’s known in German, is a historical term for a land with a long and complex history. In early medieval Germany, the lands belonged to a secular prince of the Holy Roman Empire, known as the C Palatinate. Its exact boundaries fluctuated with the political fortunes of those in power. Nowadays, the Palatinate refers to the southernmost parts of the German “Land” known as Rheinland-Pfalz, accounting for roughly one-quarter of its total area.

The Palatinate suffered greatly under numerous devastating wars, prompting many from the area, including the Pennsylvania Dutch, to seek a better life in the American colonies. The particularly harsh winter of 1708-09 was another trigger for mass migration. Land shortages and a general lack of political prospects in Germany ensured waves of new arrivals kept coming throughout the 19th century. Many of these emigrants made good in their adopted homeland, including Henry Villard, builder of the Northern Pacific Railroad and John H. Heinz, founder of the ketchup factory bearing his name.

Another son of the Palatinate who went on to have an interesting career in the U.S. was Thomas Nast. Nast was born in Landau on September 27, 1840 and at the age of six, was taken to New York by his mother. At the age of 15, he landed his first job as an illustrator for a newspaper. By the age of 19, he was working for Harper’s Weekly magazine, and was well on his way to achieving fame as a political cartoonist. Nast is the creator of the Republican elephant symbol, and he also has much to do with Santa Claus as we know and love him today.

Nast’s illustrations of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular magazines of its time, beginning in 1863. With the Civil War about to enter its second year as the backdrop, his first drawing of Santa Claus depicts him greeting Union soldiers in a camp. The bearded, fur-clad Santa wears a star-patterned jacket and striped pants, and he dangles a puppet upon a string. Upon closer inspection, we see the toy resembles Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and there’s a noose around its neck.

The Santa Claus brought to life by Nast’s pen might appear jolly and good-natured, but the character is based in part on the artist’s youthful experiences with a much less benevolent character. In Nast’s Palatinate homeland, The Belsnickel, also known as Pelznickel, was a fearsome, fur-clad being who visited children at their homes in the weeks before Christmas. A traditional companion of the kindly St. Nicholas, whose feast day is celebrated Dec. 6, Belsnickel’s role was to punish ill-behaved children, a kind of bad cop to the saint’s goodness and light. In Nast’s drawings, Santa has a round belly and a friendly countenance; his fur-trimmed coat worn with a belt and flowing beard are likely reimagined remnants of Nash’s childhood recollections.

Nast was a firm supporter of the military. Of the 33 Santa illustrations he made for Harper’s Weekly, one of the most famous is titled “Merry Old Santa Claus.” At first glance, it’s a classic drawing of Santa and his sack. Put under the microscope, one notes Santa is wearing an army backpack for enlisted men. The sword and belt buckle he holds are symbols of the army, and the pocket watch dangling from his finger shows the hour is approaching midnight, indicating it’s high time for the U.S. Senate to step up and pay military men their worth.

Landau hasn’t forgotten its native son who made good in the U.S. The official name of its Christmas market is the “Thomas-Nast-Nicholasmarkt," and the pleasant wine town on the southern stretch of the German Wine Road educates some of its youngest residents in an elementary school bearing his name.

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