Life Seeing red: Coca-Cola and the great Santa conspiracy
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Seeing red: Coca-Cola and the great Santa conspiracy

Coca-Cola didn't invent the modern Santa, but it owns him as a marketing triumph. Photo: Coca-Cola company
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Santa Claus has once again done the miraculous thing of committing millions of break-and-enters the world over – in one night! What a mystery!

An even bigger question has loomed for nearly a century: Was the modern-day Santa Claus invented by the Coca-Cola company?
On the company’s website, Coke not only suggests it invented the modern Santa, it claims to own him.

“A velvety red Santa suit with a white fur trim, a thick, snowy beard, and a jolly face: the Coca-Cola Santa plays a part in all of our Christmases. In fact, our Santa helped to define the look and personality of the modern Father Christmas,” Coke suggests.

“Although it may not seem like it now, this Santa hasn’t always been around. He was created by artist Haddon Sundblom, who spent the years between 1931 and 1965 fine-tuning the story of our Santa.”

How Santa got his bubbly personality

Sundblom based his Santa on the description given by Clement Clarke Moore in his classic 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, better known as Twas the Night Before Christmas – when the first mention of flying reindeer was made, by the way.

St Nicholas, 4th century Bishop of Myra: raised children from the dead, saved girls from prostitution, gave pawn brokers their iconography. Photo: Ancient Faith Store

Coke admits it wasn’t the first to portray Santa in a red suit – or to make him jolly and fat.

But it’s fair to say there is no other company that so successfully marketed the old guy – and set in stone the way he looks.

All of this occurred during the middle of the 20th century when mass marketing found its stride.

And if that takes some of the magic out of Santa, consider this:
The red suit may have started with the Dutch version of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) in red church vestments – whose offsiders weren’t elves, but Black (Zwarte) Piet, virtual slaves who controversially persist today, black face and all.

The white beard can be found in some of the iconography of the original St Nicholas, the early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra, during the time of the Roman Empire.

How did this guy become the great figure of childhood delight?

It started with a story first told by the ninth-century monk Michael the Archimandrite: A wealthy man loses his fortune and decides to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he can’t provide dowries.

The Thomas Nast Santa that paved the way for the modern jolly fat man. Photo: oldprintshop.com

Nicholas, who enjoyed a large inheritance, sneaked up to the man’s house in the dead of night and threw three bags of gold through the window (or down the chimney), enabling the girls to find respectable husbands and escape hard times.

Haddon Sundblom and one of his culture-claiming paintings of Santa for the Coca-Cola company. Photo: Coca-Cola

From this act of kindness St Nicholas became the patron saint of spinsters and of pawnbrokers: The three balls you see on pawnshop signs are said to be those three bags of gold.

An even better story: Nicholas brings three boys back to life. Pretty amazing given they were not only murdered by an inn-keeper: He chopped them up and pickled them in a barrel. For this miracle Nicholas was named patron saint of children.

Over the centuries, his legend travelled north. For a time St Nick became confused with the Norse god Odin. After a while, he shrank and turned into an elf.

The German-born caricaturist and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with “inventing” Santa Claus for the Americans. His first drawings appeared on the cover of the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly – and shows Santa Claus visiting a Union army camp during the Civil War.

It was Nast who made Santa jolly, fat and smoking a pipe – with a doll under his arm. It was this painting – along with Clarke Moore’s poem – that inspired Sundblom’s paintings for the Coca-Cola company.

Coke’s Santa hasn’t wiped out the other incarnations that continue to exist in Europe. But he has certainly enjoyed world dominance.

On that note: Merry Christmas!

And in case you missed it, take a look at our festive film on the origins of the Christmas tree.