Santa Claus, Old Saint Nic, Pere Noel, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle – we all know the man in red, but where did he really come from? And more importantly, why does he love Coca-Cola so much?
Versions of the Santa legend have been around for over a thousand years, but it wasn’t until the 1800’s that he made his debut in the big apple. It’s really no surprise that the cultural icon who played a pivotal role in the commercialization of Christmas was born on the same streets as some of the most powerful brands of the 19th century.
Before we explore how Santa became Coca Cola’s brand ambassador, let’s go back to where it all started.
Once upon a time (approximately 300 AD if we’re being specific), in a faraway land (what is now known as Turkey), there was a Christian Bishop named St. Nicholas. Side note: I’m now wondering if there’s any correlation here as to why we eat turkey on Christmas. Anyway, St. Nicholas spent his life traveling the countryside using his inherited wealth to help the poor and sick, and soon became known as the protector of children. His benevolence made him Europe’s most popular Saint, particularly in Holland where Sint Nikolaas – or Sinterklass, as he was affectionately known – paved the way for the beloved North American version of Santa Claus we know today.
Sinterklaas made his New York debut in 1773 when Dutch settlers gathered in early December (the anniversary of his death) to honor him with feasts and celebrations. But in 1822, New York Professor and Minister, Clement Clark Moore, popularized the Santa narrative when he penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” (or as it’s more commonly recognized, “The Night before Christmas”).
Moore took the classic legend of Sinterklaas and created a jolly, elf-like man who flew around in a magical sleigh led by eight flying reindeer, easily slipping down chimneys and delivering toys to children all over the world. When Thomas Nast (a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly) was commissioned to create Christmas illustrations in 1863, he reimaged St. Nick in order to give him more contemporary relevance. While building upon the existing mythology and maintaining key elements from Moore’s narrative, Nast made his hero taller, grander, rounder, and jollier—essentially acting as a foil for the robber baron character. While both are plump, whiskered, and ripe of age, Santa is generous and jolly rather than greedy and wicked.
Sundblom did what no one else was able to do, he made Santa human – he showed him relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing with children, sneaking a midnight coke out of the refrigerator and even supporting our troops in times of war.
This authoritative yet benevolent Santa Claus gave consumers a reason to shop, but it wasn’t about spending – it was about giving. He represented kindness, giving, and generosity, and department stores quickly capitalized on the opportunity, branding Santa Claus as their new Christmas mascot.
Coca-Cola jumped on the Santa Claus bandwagon in 1923, but when artist Haddon Sundblom painted a version of Santa Claus in 1931 that so perfectly captured how the public saw him, it became known as “the real Santa Claus.” With his snow-white hair, kind twinkling eyes, and rosy cheeks, he instantly became a North American icon and was featured in Coca-Cola ads that ran in the country’s most popular publications. Sundblom did what no one else was able to do, he made Santa human – he showed him relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing with children, sneaking a midnight coke out of the refrigerator and even supporting our troops in times of war. He was even depicted in some of Sundblom’s paintings wearing a wedding band, further contributing to the “everyman” image.
The children of North America ate this up faster than sugar plums and candy canes, effectively holding parents accountable for fulfilling their Christmas dreams. The idea of Santa was so appealing that Mom and Dad had no choice but to keep the dream alive – which meant shopping, shopping, and more shopping. I’m not cynical – honestly, I love Christmas as much as the next person – but you can’t deny that from a sales point of view, Santa Claus is marketing genius.
As a society, we’re sentimental and highly emotionally driven, which means that most of our decisions are too. Chances are, if you’re standing in front of a cooler with several options, and the Coke bottle triggers that feeling you had as a kid waiting for your chance to sit on Santa’s lap, you’re going to get the Coke. Why? Simple. Because it makes you feel good.
Coke has spent over a century attaching their brand to the things we hold dearest to our hearts: love, friends, family, and good times. Throwing Santa into the mix has been a perfect fit, and has allowed them to continue creating emotionally compelling ads almost 85 years later.
My point? Coca-Cola knows how to get us right in the feels.