About Santa Claus

In the first part, we saw the first two characteristics about Santa, being happy, generous and being very large of stomach. (bowlful of jelly) That poem was written in 1822. The drawing below was made 40 years later, and shows Saint Nicholas as not only being both of those, but here's the white beard, too. He is still generous, though this time it is to soldiers away from home in battle.

Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast

"Santa Claus in Camp," Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863, cover.

Thomas Nast “invented” the image popularly recognized as Santa Claus. Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War.

Nast’s Santa appeared as a kindly figure representing Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. His use of Santa Claus was melancholy, sad for the faltering Union war effort in which Nast so fervently believed, and sad for the separation of soldiers and families.

When Nast created his image of Santa Claus he was drawing on his native German tradition of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop known for his kindness and generosity. In the German Christian tradition December 6 was (and is) Saint Nicholas day, a festival day honoring Saint Nicholas and a day of gift giving.

Nast combined this tradition of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves to draw his Santa in 1862. The claim that Nast “invented” Santa Claus in 1862 is thus accurate, but the assertion overlooks the centuries-long antecedents to his invention.

Santa Claus thrived thereafter in American culture both Christian and secular. During the Civil War, Christmas was a traditional festival celebration in the United States, although not yet a holiday. In Nast’s time Christmas was not a day when offices or factories closed; but the development of Christmas as a holiday and the use of Santa Claus as a secular symbol of gift giving removed from its Christian antecedents occurred during Nast’s lifetime. The modern American celebration of Christmas, with its commercialized gift exchanges, developed in cities, led by New York, after 1880.

Well, we have him happy. We have him jolly and round. We have the facial features that also came out in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street" done in 1940. But where did the red fur-lined outfit come from?

We don't really know! It was known in 1927,  as The New York Times reported on 27 November 1927:

A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.

Haddon Sundblom illustrationStandardized in 1927, at least for the city of New York. So it was NOT created by the Coca-Cola company. But, they sure made this version spread fast!

At the beginning of the 1930s, the Coca-Cola company was looking for ways to increase sales during winter, a slow time of year for the soft drink market. They turned to a commercial illustrator named Haddon Sundblom, who created a series of memorable drawings that associated the figure of a larger than life, red-and-white garbed Santa Claus with Coca-Cola.

Coke's annual advertisements -- featuring Sundblom-drawn Santas holding bottles of Coca-Cola, drinking Coca-Cola, receiving Coca-Cola as gifts, and especially enjoying Coca-Cola -- became a perennial Christmastime feature which helped spur Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter (and produced the bonus effect of appealing quite strongly to children, an important segment of the soft drink market). They use polar bears today! The success of this advertising campaign helped standardize the modern Santa Claus, decking him out in a red-and-white suit, which were also the company colors.