Why Does Santa Live In The North Pole? A Political Cartoonist's Vision NPR's Ari Shapiro interviews historian Fiona Halloran about the origins of placing Santa in the North Pole.

Why Does Santa Live In The North Pole? A Political Cartoonist's Vision

Why Does Santa Live In The North Pole? A Political Cartoonist's Vision

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NPR's Ari Shapiro interviews historian Fiona Halloran about the origins of placing Santa in the North Pole. She says it all began with Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist in the 19th century who completely redrew the image that Americans had of St. Nicholas.


Now a spoiler alert - if you are listening to our program with children who are expecting a certain visitor tonight, you might want to turn down the radio. Here's Ari with a poem.


It's the night before Christmas, and here on our show, there's something we're really just dying to know. And because I'm speaking in holiday banter, you can guess that my question's related to Santa. And the question is this - for such a warm-hearted soul, why does he live in the chilly North Pole?

With our answer is Fiona Halloran, who wrote a book about the guy who can be credited with placing Santa Claus at the North Pole. Who is this guy?


SHAPIRO: Describe him.

HALLORAN: Thomas Nast is America's most famous political cartoonist. He was a powerful force in 19th century politics for a solid 20 years and then for some period after that. And he was a very deeply engaged participant in Republican politics, in particular.

SHAPIRO: And in around the 1860s, he did some famous illustrations of Santa Claus. Describe what one of these cartoons looks like.

HALLORAN: Well, the first one, which many people have seen, shows Santa arriving in a Union Army camp at Christmas of 1863...

SHAPIRO: This is, like, Civil War Union army.

HALLORAN: That's right - to provide gifts and Harper's Weekly newspapers to the soldiers. It's an advertisement. It's the cover of the magazine for which Nast worked, and so it's the children - the little drummer boys are excited by their copy of Harper's Weekly...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HALLORAN: ...Like you would be at Christmas.

SHAPIRO: And how does the North Pole factor into these illustrations?

HALLORAN: Well, so, later - Thomas Nast eventually began to produce Christmas drawings every year because the public loved them. And so in later cartoons, he provided a wealth of detail, including in a couple of them an indication that Santa could be reached by mail at the North Pole.

SHAPIRO: Talk about how people viewed the North Pole in the mid-1800s. What was it about this place that would have made it an appealing idea for people?

HALLORAN: Well, in the 1840s and 1850s, a number of explorers attempted to reach the North Pole. And people were interested in those efforts, in much the way that we are interested today in efforts to reach Mars, for example.

And it's not, I think, accidental that this is the same time when people are traveling west to settle. And so there's a kind of adventurous, extreme quality to a lot of things that people were interested in. But it's clear that Santa had always been understood to be somebody associated with cold places, and the ultimate cold place that is remote is the North Pole. I think one of the appeals of the North Pole is that you couldn't get there, right? There's no danger that Santa's mystery will be erased because you're not going to run into him at the North Pole grocery store.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Thomas Nast's cartoons also reshaped the way we view Santa as a physical presence. Talk about how his drawings changed our perception of this character.

HALLORAN: Well, in the earliest part of the 19th century, Christmas was a very different holiday in all kinds of ways. And one of the things that was different about it was that Santa was a much more forbidding character, and that reflected in his body. He was tall and slim. He looked like a bishop, and his job was to judge you.

But in the middle part of the century, in general, Americans embraced sentimentality, a kind of domestic life that they idealized. And Thomas Nast helped to make Santa into a symbol of that by changing his body, and you find Santa getting tubbier, and his beard grows, and he suddenly has a pipe. And so, a lot of the things we think of as typically Santa - especially the sort of twinkly, grandfatherly quality of Santa - Nast really created that in his drawings.

SHAPIRO: Fiona Halloran is the author of "Thomas Nast: A Father Of Political Cartoons."

Thanks for joining us.

HALLORAN: It was my pleasure.

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