Did Coca-Cola Invent the Modern Image of Santa Claus?

Santa rocked red before Coca-Cola ever came on the scene.

Vintage & Historical
4 min
Engrid Barnett
Engrid Barnett
Did Coca-Cola Invent the Modern Image of Santa Claus?
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Vintage & Historical

Back in 2007, a controversy the size of Santa’s jelly belly rocked the world. Claims were made that Claus wears his iconic scarlet apparel because it’s the same color as Coca–Cola’s branding. Yikes! The thought of explaining to starry-eyed youngsters that Jolly Old Saint Nicholas wears red because of soda “Mad Men” filled many parents’ hearts with dread.  

Fortunately, a little Christmas history reveals everybody’s favorite giant elf has been sporting shades of ruby, vermilion, and burgundy since the 1860s, about 70 years before Coca-Cola developed its iconic image of St. Nick.  

Read on to find out more about the evolution of the North Pole’s most famous resident and Coca-Cola’s actual role in the cultivation of his image. 

Santa’s Origins 

In 2008, Phil Mooney—director of Coca-Cola Company’s Archives Department—set the record straight about Santa’s brightly-colored garb. Mooney explained, “Actually, we do not claim the color of Santa’s coat, though it has worked out well for us since red is so closely related to Coca-Cola! But we did not come up with the idea of putting Santa in red clothes.”  

santa

Santa has worn his traditional red outfit since the mid-19th century. How do we know? Thanks to an 1868 advertisement for Sugar Plums by the US Confection Company of New York. What’s more, illustrations by the “Father of the American Christmas card,” Louis Prang , also depict him in his now-famous attire. Famed political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, played a crucial role in “fleshing out” Santa’s plump physique and providing him with all of his trappings. But he dressed him in many different colors.   

Prang and Nast both hailed from Germany, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many of the longest-held traditions celebrated during the Yuletide come from Germanic Europe, including Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, and Christmas trees.  

As for the concept of Santa Claus? He’s based on a flesh–and–blood 4th-century Greek hero, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Originating in what is modern–day Turkey, Nicholas earned a reputation for secret gift–giving. His generosity included putting coins in shoes left out for him. And he gifted three impoverished sisters with dowries so they could get married instead of becoming prostitutes. (Have fun explaining that one to your kids!)

Santa’s Pictorial History 

The first pictorial images of St. Nicholas were religious icons. A great example is the 13th-century St. Nicholas “Lipensky ” Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod. Over time, the saint’s image slowly transformed, as did his name. Santa Claus is a derivative of the Dutch Sinterklaas , an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas . The Dutch also pictured him riding a white horse across rooftops while carrying a staff. Why rooftops? Because that’s where his minions lurked, eavesdropping at the chimneys of houses with kids.   

These rooftop legends also link Santa Claus to the Norse god Odin who judged good and bad kids. Doesn’t that beard look a little Odin-like to you? By the 17th century, Santa used a variety of titles from Sir Christmas to Lord Christmas and Old Father Christmas, and he started wearing fur-trimmed robes. Whether or not these robes were red is up for debate as the illustrations were black-and-white engravings.  

By the 19th century, as Dutch, German, and British immigrants to the US continued to mingle, so did their rich traditions surrounding Santa. By the 1860s, Thomas Nast’s illustrations depicted Santa with his reindeer and a sleigh. What’s more, Nast made him jolly and pipe-smoking. But he dressed him in a wide variety of outfits, from head-to-toe yellow to star-and-stripe patterned suits. Although he didn’t necessarily wear red, Nast’s images of Santa are highly recognizable to this day.  

santa

A Nast drawing of Santa from 1863.

Coca-Cola and Santa 

It’s safe to say that the modern images we associate with Santa Claus reached recognizable maturity by the 1860s and 1870s thanks to artists like Louis Sprang and Thomas Nast. As for Coca-Cola? It was invented in 1886 by Dr. John S. Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist. The company wouldn’t start advertising with Santa until the 1930s.  

santa with coke

Nevertheless, when Coke’s advertising guru, Archie Lee, hired Haddon Sundblom to create fresh images of Saint Nicholas, Lee hit marketing gold. Sundblom’s gorgeous illustrations from 1931 to 1964 helped codify our image of Santa today. But it’s important to note he drew inspiration from previous artists as well as Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  

About The Author

Engrid Barnett

Engrid Barnett

Engrid is an award-winning travel writer and cultural geographer who’s long cultivated an obsession …

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