Donder and Blitzen (German for “thunder” and “lightning”) first appeared in 1823, written by Clement Clarke Moore in his classic poem “The Night Before Christmas”. Until that time, Americans were pretty fuzzy about Santa Claus, the patron saint of Christmas. Moore would help define him as a gift giver of sackcloth and chimney climber, a reindeer sled driver, an overweight and cheerful inhabitant of the Northlands and, despite Moore’s personal loathing of tobacco, a smoker of pipe, surrounded by a crown bearing goodwill.
It would take a later contribution during the difficult times of the American Civil War to put the finishing touches on the image of Santa Claus.
Thomas Nast was born in 1840 in Germany but moved to New York with his family in 1846. Unable to speak English at an early age and never having learned to read or write properly despite early schooling, his prospects for gainful employment in his adopted country seemed quite distant. . Physically he was described as short and stocky, but despite all the limitations Thomas had shown an early talent for drawing.
At 15, he somehow mustered enough courage to walk past the receptionist’s desk and into the New York office of famous Frank Leslie, applying for a job as an illustrator. Originally mocked, he was given the seemingly impossible task of going down to the Manhattan platform and luring all the people there during rush hour. The young boy eagerly embraced the task and finished the painting the next day. Young Thomas Nast was hired as an illustrator by Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for four dollars a week, starting a distinguished career that would span decades.
It was during the American Civil War that Thomas Nast rose to prominence as a leading cartoonist and illustrator in the United States. Physically unfit for military service, he became a war correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, and his drawings of battles and frontline conditions quickly began to permeate many American homes.
As a thank you for his war effort, President Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed young Nast to be “our best recruiting sergeant.”
This was an illustration titled “Santa Claus Comes in Camp” where Nast first used the image of Santa Claus. For inspiration, he asked his wife Sarah to read him Clement Clarke Moore’s poem before starting the work. Nast went on to create some 76 Christmas drawings during his lifetime and in doing so helped define Santa Claus as we know him today.
From Nast’s work came the concept of Santa Claus being from the North Pole (therefore being a citizen of the world, not of a specific country), the idea of a workshop led by little elves and letters to send to Father. Christmas making requests and gifts given exclusively to children who had been good the previous year. Santa’s outfit was represented by red and white striped pants and a blue coat splashed with white stars. A small funnel-shaped fur cap would sit on his patriotic head.
It is this specific image created by Thomas Nast for the Christmas of 1862 that will capture the heart of famous Civil War re-enactor 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 Talcott Mountain Academy in Avon, but also spent much of his free time in “the hobby” (as it is often called) of pageant. .
Willi began portraying the War of Independence in the early 1990s as an officer of Hesse, but after a while he and his wife Becky began to reenact the Civil War, playing the role of a surgeon and later a union captain.
Each role has been carefully scripted with typical Willi Runk attention to historical detail… clothing, voice, general demeanor of who is portrayed. He could be found in Gettysburg giving orders to his troops or at some other Civil War reenactment site, possibly commanding cannons to fire, all of it in great drama.
Willi then joined “The Society of Europe”, an umbrella organization for all performances, and began to make more civil impressions of the time. He portrayed a Prussian Ambassador to the United States for many years, but then ran into Santa Claus, among them all.
For those familiar with Smith-Harris House, East Lyme’s mid-19th century museum (recently renamed “Brookside Farms”), it has always had a certain magic, especially during the holiday season. Willi Runk immediately sensed it. Repeatedly over the years, while making impressions there for Heritage Weekend or other events, he would comment on the vibe of the place and often say that of all the historic sites he had visited or played, it was his absolute favorite. It was just like “home,” he said.
“I remember many conversations Willi and I had over the years,” suggested Georgia Lee Littlefield, architect of many of Smith-Harris House’s historic programs. “Willi would often comment on the attention to detail we gave to the place, and that was praise from someone of his historic stature. One day we were talking about our Christmas program, and I remember having said it was a pity that we didn’t have an accurate and correct Santa Claus to offer to the public. Willi said he would think and research and get back to me in the near future. It might be a way , he said as he left, for him to bring history to the little ones.
After a year of research and designing both the appropriate historical demeanor and the appropriate patriotic clothing, Thomas Nast’s recreation of Civil War Santa Claus was complete. Jolly Old St. Nicholas was back in town.
“Merry Christmas!” welcomed many vacationers when entering the house. Children crowded around him, some sitting on the floor while others competed to sit on his knees. Cookies and tea were placed on the table next to him. Nibbling them every now and then and sipping his tea, the story of Christmas and historic Santa Claus began to unfold.
All present, young and old, were captivated by the knowledge of this re-enactor and his warm speech.
“Shopping center Santas can be scary for some kids,” Littlefield explained, “but I’ve never seen a single child do anything other than gravitate towards our Santa. It was a tribute to Willi Runk’s talent 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 August 30, 2012.
Postscript: Willi always had his pipe with him whenever he played Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus at the local museum, but he never lit it when the “little ones” were around.
Subsequently, however, still very much in his character, he could often be seen smoking this pipe contentedly as he sat alone in a comfortable rocking chair on the porch.
This calm scene is remembered by many, with some even claiming to see the smoke from his pipe begin to curl in the strangest fashion above his bespectacled head. “Almost like a crown,” one of them reportedly said.
Jim Littlefield is a retired East Lyme history teacher who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.