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Did Coca-Cola Create the Common Santa Claus Image?

Coca-Cola and Santa Claus go hand-in-hand. Each year, the soda company invokes the jolly man in the red suit for the holidays. In fact, Coke’s relationship with Santa is so strong it transcends the beverage. 

It almost seems that Coca-Cola invented the familiar Santa image we all recognize today. But is that how it happened?

We plowed into the history of how Father Christmas came to be!

Let’s ride!

What Is the History of Santa Claus?

The story of Santa Claus is over 1,000 years old and begins halfway across the world. Before there was Santa Claus, there was Saint Nicholas – also known as Saint Nick.

Nicholas lived in present-day Turkey in the fourth century. He became the bishop of Myra, a small village, and was eventually canonized as a saint in the 15th century. Little is known about his life except that Nicholas was exceptionally generous and protective of children. By many accounts, he also had a penchant for secret gift-giving.

The earliest depictions of Santa Claus appeared in celebrations of Saint Nicholas’s feast day in the Netherlands. Dutch parents put gifts in their children’s clogs on the eve of the feast day. When the children woke up the next morning, their parents claimed the presents were from Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas in Dutch.

Santa Claus Comes to America

The legend of Sinterklaas came to the U.S. in the 17th century as Dutch immigrants first settled in present-day New York City. 

Santa Claus took shape about 200 years later when Washington Irving published The Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Irving’s satirical book described a quirky Dutchman in a red suit who flew around the city dropping gifts for children down chimneys. The depiction gained popularity and quickly became part of many American Christmas traditions.

Clement Clarke Moore, a friend of Irving, also contributed to the image of Santa Claus we know today. Moore wrote the poem that would eventually be known as The Night Before Christmas in 1822. The author decided to alter the Sinterklaas myth to make the character more accessible to American kids. 

Instead of Dutch clogs, Moore wrote about children hanging their stockings by the chimney. He also claimed that reindeer pulled Santa’s sleigh rather than a Dutch donkey.

Santa Claus finally evolved into a jolly, plump man in 1863. During the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly commissioned Thomas Nast to illustrate Santa delivering Christmas gifts to Union soldiers. Nast combined elements from Moore’s poem and common depictions of Uncle Sam to create the Saint Nick we love today.

You may have heard rumors that Coca-Cola “invented” the iconic American version of Santa Claus. You can buy ornaments, cookie tins, and even home decor showing him relaxing with a bottle of soda. But that’s not exactly true! 

Coca-Cola didn’t create Santa’s look firsthand despite their highly successful Christmas campaigns and lasting imagery. Thomas Nast’s depiction arrived more than 50 years before the soda company presented theirs.

Coca-Cola first added Santa to its marketing efforts in the 1920s. During this time, the company began advertising in several magazines ahead of the holidays. These ad campaigns featured a man dressed in a red suit who looked similar to Saint Nick. The illustrations often depicted the man shopping at high-end stores or dropping into a soda shop.

Coca-Cola took several cues from Nast’s version of Santa. They even used the same red suit Nast drew, whereas some earlier depictions of Saint Nick showed him wearing green. But by the 1930s, the soda company wanted to take their ad campaigns even further. 

Instead of just showing Santa Claus, they aimed to remake him. For this job, the company called upon Haddon Sundblom.

Who Is Haddon Sundblom?

Haddon Sundblom was an American artist and illustrator. Born in 1899, Sundblom was only 32 when Coca-Cola commissioned him to create their version of Santa Claus. The company offered him nearly $1,000 for the job, which was a massive sum at the time. 

Sundblom accepted and set to work. He would spend the next 30 years helping this version of Saint Nick grow and evolve.

The artist’s first depiction of Santa took inspiration from The Night Before Christmas. This version was chubby and cheerful, with a white beard, rosy cheeks, and a cherry-red suit. When the Great Depression hit a few years later, Sundblom painted a new version. 

This Santa enjoyed a Coke while relaxing next to a Christmas tree with his sleeves rolled up. The artist ensured that Saint Nick changed with the times like real people.

From 1931 to 1965, Sundblom painted at least eight versions of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola. Some paintings showed him pulling sodas and turkey legs from the fridge, while others depicted him resting next to a cooler full of Coke bottles. 

Sundblom even created a second character, Sprite Boy, for the company. Interestingly, Sprite Boy appeared with Father Christmas for two decades before Coca-Cola finally released the beverage of the same name.

The artist’s final Santa painting came in 1964, showing the jolly man spending time with two young children and a black poodle. Sundblom was inspired by his neighbors’ children and a nearby florist’s dog. Coca-Cola resurrected this version in 2001 for an animated commercial.

Sundblom died in 1976 at 76 years old, but his rendition of Saint Nick lives on today. The painter’s work continues to resonate decades after his death. Many of his original paintings have appeared in galleries around the world.

Is Santa Actually Red Because of Coca-Cola?

As we learned earlier, Coca-Cola wasn’t responsible for Santa Claus’s red suit. The company itself acknowledges this fact, too. The first known depiction of a red outfit came from Thomas Nast’s illustration. However, Saint Nick could have appeared in red even earlier than that.

There are countless depictions of Father Christmas across history. Some versions show him as a thin, sickly man; in other versions, he’s scary. Some adaptations show a suave, distinguished gentleman or one with an elf-like. 

What Coca-Cola did accomplish was the creation of a joyful, friendly version. Although the company didn’t invent Santa Claus, it certainly solidified his appearance in the imaginations of many.

The Jolly Old Santa Claus We Know

Is there anything more American than Santa Claus? The kindly saint who loved children and gift-giving traveled all the way from Turkey to the Netherlands before immigrating to the U.S. 

Over centuries, he evolved countless times in the imaginations of children and adults alike. Every transformation was a step toward creating the Saint Nick we all know and love today.

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