Every Christmas the same story goes around social media; Coca-Cola invented Santa or at least gave him a whole new look in the 1930s.
They are the reason his suit is red, after all it’s the Coca-Cola colour.
But this is nonsense.
First a bit of history:
Santa evolved from the medieval Father Christmas who was the mythical representation of Christmas and Saint Nicholas of Myra, a man of Greek descent born in part of the Roman Empire that today is called Turkey, in the third century AD.
Although very little is known about his life there are many myths and miracles connected to him.
One such story describes how Nicholas saved a poor man’s daughters from a life of prostitution by
secretly throwing coins or gold for their dowries through an open window.
It’s also claimed that he calmed the sea during a storm and that when he found out that a butcher had kidnapped, killed and pickled three boys, Saint Nicholas resurrected them!
It didn’t take long for Nicholas to become the patron saint of children, the poor, sailors, prostitutes, the unmarried and many more.
Churches were founded in his name and in several parts of Medieval Europe Saint Nicholas was celebrated yearly with his own holiday, on or around December 6th.
He remains popular in many countries, especially Netherlands, where coins are one of the traditional gifts, just like the ones he gave the poor father and daughters although these days the coins are made of chocolate.
When the first Dutch immigrants went to America they brought their traditions with them and they started celebrating Saint Nicholas’ eve in colonies like New York, then New Amsterdam.
In Britain they had Father Christmas, Germans had their Weihnachtsmann and eventually traditions and history got mixed together and Santa Claus was born.
And as his story changed, so did his appearance, for a long time he was depicted in many different ways, wearing all sorts of outfits, sometimes fat, sometimes thin, sometimes in red, sometimes wearing green.
But by the 1850s portraying him in a red suit had already become more popular than the other colours.
There isn’t one person that can be credited with inventing Santa’s current look, it evolved over the centuries, being changed by many people in many ways.
Some already looked a bit like Santa does today, he sometimes even wore red.
When the illustrator Thomas Nast started making Christmas related drawings for the magazine Harper’s Weekly that depicted his version of Santa, they became very popular.
In the December 29th 1866 issue a large two page picture was published made by Nast, it combined parts of the tradition he knew from his childhood in Germany with Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “Twas the night before Christmas (which some scholars claim was actually written by Henry Livingston Jr.).
The drawing was titled ‘Santa Claus and His Works‘ and depicts Santa already looking very familiar and with pretty much all the familiar ingredients of the story; the reindeer, workshop, a book with children who were naughty or nice, it’s pretty much all there.
His drawings were included in several publications and little books about Santa but whenever these would be printed in colour Santa would be given a brownish or reddish outfit, this was before Coca-Cola was even invented.
Still, there were other versions of Santa that were around at that time and even Nast’s Santa wasn’t quite the same as the one we know from the 1930s soft drink advertisements.
But by the 1920s Santa,exactly as he was depicted by Coca-Cola and looking like he looks today had become a very popular character that regularly appeared on magazine covers and in advertisements.
Especially thanks to illustrators like Norman Rockwell and Joseph Christian Leyendecker, a big round Santa in the red suit with fur trimming, the big white beard, the black boots, the belt, etc. had been a familiar sight across the United States and later the world.
Here’s a gallery of Santa being depicted in magazines, adverts and postcards, even selling drinks, all published BEFORE Coca-Cola’s 1931 campaign, what do you think, does he look familiar to the Santa we know today?
In the 1920s Coca-Cola started to use Santa in their advertising, in 1931 they decided to start a campaign all about Santa, they asked the incredibly talented Haddon Sundblom to illustrate their adverts.
For decades Sundblom’s Santa was used by Coca-Cola and his Santa was seen across the world, to this day the company uses a Santa based on Sundblum’s design.
Of course the artist put some of his own imagination and taste into how he drew Santa but we already know that Santa looked pretty much as we know him before Sundblum started drawing him.
Of course having one of the biggest brands in the world flood the media, streets and shops with their version of Santa played a huge part in making sure that everybody started seeing Santa in this way and forgetting about the ones that came before.
And sadly, forgetting all about the real Saint Nicholas.
Although in a slightly confusing twist the old Medieval Saint Nicholas is still visiting countries across Europe only to be followed closely by his clone Santa, both wearing red.
- Thomas Nast, political cartoonist, by J. Chalmers Vinson
- The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra by Adam C. English.
- Five Things You Never Knew About Santa Claus and Coca-Cola according to Coca-Cola.
- Sint & Pietengilde
- The Public Domain Review
- St. Nicholas Center
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