Santa was not always a happy old man dressed in red and white.
Before the 1930s Saint Nicholas came in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. Some illustrations portrayed him as a tall and slender man with a serious demeanour, others as short and delicate. Europeans, for example, have had their own versions of Santa for centuries.
In the Netherlands Saint Nicholas is illustrated as a bishop dressed in red who rides in on a white horse named Schimmel. In Belgium, on occasion, Saint Nicholas rides in with his white horse Slecht-weer-vandaag, which translates to “bad-weather-today”. There are plenty of versions of St. Nicholas deeply rooted in the histories of European countries, but they are rapidly losing the popularity contest with the consumer centric Santa of Coca-Cola fame. So much so, that parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands, actually had signs at the entrance of villages making it clear that Santa cannot come into the village until Saint Nicolas is done with it.
In North America, between 1862 and 1892, Thomas Nast, a Civil War cartoonist, consistently changed the colour of Santa Claus’ coat gradually taking it from tan to red. Nast’s Santa was serious and in line with the historical values and meaning associated with Saint Nicholas. But that changed when Coca-Cola decided it needed to increase sales of its soft-drinks, best served cold, over the winter season.
Coca-Cola first started its Christmas advertisements in the 1920s, and at first, they based their Santa on the one illustrated by Nast. However, in 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned an illustrator by the name of Haddon Sundblom to create a “wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic” presumably because Nast’s one was rather serious and far too stern to sell a product; Coca-Cola needed a feel-good Santa.
Sundblom found inspiration in a description of Santa written in a Clement Clark Moore poem titled, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”. This resulted in a Santa who had twinkly eyes, dimples, rosy cheeks, and a nose like a cherry with a beard that was white as snow. “He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.”
Sundblom combined these characteristics with the image of his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman, whom he used as a live model for the artwork. As for the colour of the coat, well it wasn’t because of Coca-Cola but rather because that was one of the existing versions of Santa that Sundblom found most appropriate (not to mention that it fit perfectly with the brands colours). For the next 33 years Sundblom illustrated Santa for Coca-Cola creating his last version in 1964. The company still uses his original Santa for their Christmas marketing campaigns.
Today, 86 years on, the first airing of the advertisement on TV is treated by many as the start of the Christmas season; the image of a warm, loving, grandfatherly figure wearing red and white is the de-facto image of Saint Nicholas; and a soft-drink that is best served chilled on a hot summer’s day is one of the first things we think about when we think of Santa in the middle of winter.
Coke didn’t hijack Santa, it took over Christmas. It’s marketing genius.