Christmas and Coca-Cola: The Changing Face of Santa

Winter is here. The days are shorter than an iPhone’s battery life, the supermarket’s playlists are all things Mariah and Slade, the snow forecasts are offering frequent disappointment, and John Lewis and Sainsbury’s have released their annual installments of heart-warming festive marketing. Like it or not, this can all mean only one thing. It’s Christmas!

But everyone knows that Christmas doesn’t really begin until the Coca-Cola Christmas truck first rolls onto our screens. The lights, the snow, the ‘holidays are coming, hoollllidays are coming’ perfectly captures the excitement that should be part and parcel of Christmas.

In fact, the face of Christmas that we know and love today would be quite different if it wasn’t for Coca-Cola. The ample-bellied, white-bearded, black booted, red and white garbed jolly old St. Nick has been nurtured by Coca-Cola, though not exactly created by them.

Santa Claus is an evolutionary figure whose exact point of origin is unknown. He is descended from the religious figure St. Nicholas, and through the course of history he has been moulded by many hands into a secular, jolly father figure who lives in a North Pole workshop manned by elves and rides a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, delivering toys to children by climbing down chimneys. Evolution sure is crazy!

In 1862, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a Santa Claus that was elf-like and mean looking. However, continuing to draw Santa for 30 years, he would change the colour of his coat from tan to the red we know today. Coca-Cola began featuring Santa in their ads in the 1920s. The first Santa they experimented with was also rather mean looking and not entirely robust. Luckily for Coke, things would soon change for the better.     

In 1931, when Coca-Cola began their Christmas ad campaign, they wanted to show a Santa that was both realistic and symbolic. This task was appointed to Haddon Sundblom, a Michigan-born illustrator who would take inspiration from Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’. In the poem, the description of St. Nick was that of a warm, friendly and plump Santa. Thus, Sundblom developed his first image of Father Christmas.

The ad was so popular that the company commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa every year until 1964. Throughout this time, while staying true to his original rendering of Santa, Sundblom would draw Santa with some very slight modifications. Some particularly observant fans noticed these changes and would write letters to the Coca-Cola Company. One year, Santa’s large belt was painted backwards. Outrageous! Another year, he was painted without a wedding ring, causing fans to wonder what had happened to Mrs. Claus.

Nonetheless, Haddon Sundblom had created the perfect image of Santa, and though it has of course developed as the years have passed, none can argue that today’s image of Santa can largely be accredited to the canny American artist.

Say what you will about Christmas, it’s the perfect time to enjoy the sweeter things in life. Cheers to you Santa, you loveable old goof. And cheers to you Coke, because you taste great, and you painted a face that no-one could hate.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


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