Whether you know him as Santa, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or Kris Kringle, the most common image that comes to mind upon hearing his name is that of a white-haired and bearded, jolly old man clothed in a red suit with white fur trim and shiny black boots.
Having roots in European folklore, and influenced by the life of the 4th century bishop, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus was originally depicted as an old man riding either a white horse, or a goat. He was always leaving gifts for good little children. Dressed in a variety of colors – or even all in fur – he was tall, or short, heavy or thin. Prior to Coke’s interpretation, illustrations of Santa were quite varied. He was even sometimes depicted as an elf, which may have been a little frightening to children.
Santa’s look was modified and given a more modern, human look by the Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast in the late 19th century. But this rendition was of a somber, strict-looking gentleman, rather than the jollier image we are familiar with today.
In the 1920s the Coca-Cola Company did not stray far from this depiction when they placed their first Christmas ads in The Saturday Evening Post featuring a serious-looking fellow. This marked the beginning of a new campaign by Coca-Cola to inform people that Coke was not just a drink for warm weather, but rather was a drink for all seasons since “Thirst Knows No Season”. These ads featured Santa as the prominent symbol for winter drinking Coca-Cola to serve as a reminder that Coke could be consumed year ‘round.
In 1931 the Coca-Cola Company decided they wanted a more “wholesome” depiction of Santa, and contracted illustrator Haddon Sundblom to give Santa a “friendlier” makeover. It is said that Sundblom’s inspiration was the poem by Clement Clark Moore, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which has come to be known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Sundblom was inspired by Moore’s description of Santa as a jolly, “chubby and plump” fellow. What he developed was a tall, pleasantly plump, elderly gentleman with a kind face and a twinkle in his eye. His depiction in the ads that followed for the next 33 years is responsible for the notion of the warm, merry Santa Claus that people today share the world over.
In Sundblom’s illustrations from 1931 to 1964, Santa is shown not only delivering toys, but also playing with them and the little children who have ventured out of bed to meet him. He’s shown checking his list – twice. And, of course, drinking lots of cold Coca-Cola.
There is a rumor that Santa wears a red coat because that was the official color for Coca-Cola, and some believe Santa was created by the Coca-Cola Company as a marketing tool. The color red is actually a carry-over from Santa’s origins as an incarnation of St. Nicholas, born in the year 282 who, as a bishop, would have worn a red cape.
No matter his preferred name, it was a daring effort by Coca-Cola’s to create a happy and recognizable image of Santa Claus. Even if meant to just be known as the “Coca-Cola Santa”, the company made a true mark on the history of Christmas, as others followed suit. Today, most all depictions of St. Nick, including those in ads and commercials, use the Coke illustrations as a basis. It is this rendition of Santa that today’s children see as “The Real Thing”.