How Coca-Cola and others made Santa fat, red, and bearded

Vintage ads featuring Santa and his beverage of choice
Vintage ads featuring Santa and his beverage of choice
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There’s nothing like a cold can of Coke on a winter afternoon. A tough sell, perhaps, but Coca-Cola had just the guy in mind to help convince consumers: Santa Claus. The company didn’t invent Santa, whose origins are more complicated, but Coke’s advertising helped popularize the modern version of Father Christmas in much of the world.

The original Coca-Cola advertisements featuring Santa were created by the artist Haddon Sundblom back in the 1930s. Sundblom is credited with solidifying the contemporary image of Santa known to Americans and many Europeans: red suit, white beard, big belly. In a review of the new book The Saint Who Would Become Santa Claus, the Wall Street Journal writes:

Dutch and German immigrants brought St. Nicholas to America in the early 19th century, and he began a process of assimilation, trading in his bishop’s miter and crosier for a fur-trimmed red suit and cap. The Santa we now know was the creation of poet Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “The Night Before Christmas”; cartoonist Thomas Nast; illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell; and the magazine ads for Coca-Cola painted by Haddon Simmons [sic.] starting in 1931, in which Santa took a break from the arduousness of setting up junior’s electric train by pausing to have a coke.

For the Coca-Cola ads, Sunblom created a happy Santa, but this had not always been the way he was interpreted. He could sometimes be seen as overworked. Coke’s concept for the advertising campaign centered around a Santa who, when armed with a bottle of Coke , was now able to make his rounds delivering toys to all the good little girls and boys with his jolly disposition intact.

Coca-Cola has often publicized its role in present-day Christmas tradition, but Coke doesn’t appear to have been Santa’s first choice of beverage. White Rock, a soda company in Queens, New York, claims credit for popularizing the modern version of Santa between 1915 and 1925. And a New York Times article from 1927 suggests that  the modern version of Santa was already alive and well before the first Coke ad:

The advertising representation of the patron saint of Christmas, this year more than ever before, has become almost as standard as the products he promises…In other years children who went from one store to another frequently were disturbed by a succession of Santa Clauses of different sizes…Height, weight, stature are almost as exactly standardized as are the red garments, the hood, the white  whiskers and the pack full of toys. Ruddy cheeks and nose, busy white eyebrows and a jolly paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.

The article notes, “Parents this year will be less hard put to it to explain why one Santa Claus is different from another.” So perhaps the modern version of Santa, however he came about, is something parents everywhere can be thankful for this Christmas.