A History of Santa Claus

Contrary to popular belief, the Santa Claus we know today, the big jolly bearded man in a red suit with white fur trim, was not the creation of the Coca Cola Company.

Indeed, their Christmas advertising campaigns of the 1930s and 40s were key to popularising the image, but Santa in his modern form can be seen decades before Haddon Sundblom’s first creation for Coca Cola.

Before 1931, Santa was depicted in many different and obscure forms, such as a tall gaunt man and a scary elf. Eventually though, during the latter half of the 19th century in particular, Santa transformed through many different looks until gradually coming to resemble the Santa we know and love today.

Santa has taken on many forms; from the description given in Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), through the vision of artist Thomas Nast who drew him over a 30 year period, to the later versions by Norman Rockwell.

Let’s take a look through the ages.

1863

Cartoonist Thomas Nast established the grounds for Santa Claus’ modern look with his initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough”.

Detail from Thomas Nast’s illustration “A Christmas Furlough” for the front page of a 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

In later drawings Nast included a North Pole setting, a toy workshop, and book containing a naughty and nice list.

1864

At this moment in time, the famous red suit was yet to be established; over the coming decades Santa donned suits of all different, colours such as blue, green, and yellow as pictured in this 1864 edition of Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.

Illustration from the 1864 edition of Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas – Source.

1868

The red jacket can be seen in this 1868 advert for Sugar Plums, but it can still be distinguished from the modern look with the green hat and fur trim.

Santa Claus Sugar Plums, showing a red suited Santa Claus on sleigh with reindeer.

1881

The persona of the modern Santa is more strongly embodied in this later 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast named “Merry Old Santa”, which depicts a jolly, human like Santa in a ruby red suit.

Colour version of Thomas Nast’s famous image.

1902

In this cover to the first edition of The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus by author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, present are added details by Baum that went a long way to popularising the legend of Santa, but still the red coat has not been cemented.

Cover to the first edition of The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum.

In this cover for Puck (1902) illustrated by the Australian Frank A. Nankivell, for the first time perhaps we see a stark resemblance of the Santa of today.

Santa Claus as illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell in Puck, v. 52, no. 1344 (December 3 1902).

1906

In this Canadian department store brochure from 1906 there are many tropes of Santa that have carried through in this image, but still with variations such as the black trimmed suit and bobble-less hat.

Cover of the Eaton’s department store Christmas catalogue for 1906, showing an image of Santa Claus. Toronto, Canada.

1913

The illustrator Norman Rockwell was key in influencing and popularising the contemporary look. Rockwell created many images of Santa during 1920s, here we can see an early illustration pre-WW1.

Norman Rockwell’s cover of Boys’ Life published December 1913.

1914

A Japanese illustration from 1914, demonstrating that the legend of Santa reached far wider than just Europe and America.

Japanese illustration featuring Santa, artist unknown.

1918

Santa appears in classic form in this piece of U.S. WW1 propaganda.

A poster by the U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division, Advertising Section, ca. 1918.

1920

Pictured here are two of Norman Rockwell’s many Santa themed covers for the Saturday Evening Post. They give a very physiologically human and naturalistic aspect to the character, rather than cartoonish features, the same style as would be adopted by Sundblom’s in his depictions for Coca Cola more than a decade later.

Two covers for the Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell, the left one from 1920, the right from 1922.

1930

Santa in Australian Magazine The Queenslander on December 25th 1930.

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, December 25 1930.

Coca Cola

The Coca Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in 1920s with shopping-related ads in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. The first Santa ads used a strict-looking Claus, in the vein of Thomas Nast.

In 1931 the company began placing Coca-Cola ads in popular magazines. Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using a wholesome looking Santa Claus, who was both realistic and symbolic.

Sundblom’s Santa was inspired by Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, which resulted in  an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa.

Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post,  appearing regularly in that magazine, as well as in Ladies Home JournalNational GeographicThe New Yorker and others.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising featured Santa engaging in a number of festive activities. The original oil paintings Sundblom created were adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines and on store displays, billboards, posters, calendars and plush dolls.

Sundblom created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964, but for several decades to follow, Coca-Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Sundblom’s original works.

1. “Please Pause Here … Jimmy” — 1932. Sundblom’s second painting. This ad ran in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Literary Digest and Ladies’ Home Journal.

2. “The Pause That Keeps You Going” — 1934. Sundblom.

3. “It Will Refresh You Too” — 1935.

4. “Me Too” — 1936.

5. “Things Go Better with Coke” — 1964. This was the last year that a traditional, original Sundblom Santa was used in the advertising for Coca-Cola.

6. “Santa, Please Pause Here” — 1963.

7. “Season’s Greetings” — 1962.

8. “When Friends Drop In” — 1961.

Santa Became Animated in 2001

In 2001, the artwork from Sundblom’s 1963 painting was the basis for an animated TV commercial starring the Coca-Cola Santa. The ad was created by Academy Award-winning animator Alexandre Petrov.

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