A velvety red Santa suit with a white fur trim, a thick, snowy beard, and a jolly face: the Coca-Cola Santa plays a part in all of our Christmases. In fact, our Santa helped to define the look and personality of the modern Father Christmas. Where would we be without him?
Although it may not seem like it now, this Santa hasn’t always been around. He was created by artist Haddon Sundblom, who spent the years between 1931 and 1965 fine-tuning the story of our Santa. Here it is:
1931: ‘My hat’s off to the pause that refreshes’
We commission Haddon Sundblom (an illustrator) to create an image of Santa Claus. He may have been paid as much as $1,000 per painting - a lot of money at that time (you could buy a car for $700).
For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Moore's description of St. Nick led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa. (And even though it's often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the colour of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.)
‘My Hat’s Off’ is the first of Sundblom’s Santas. It appeared in our ads during December 1931 to remind people that they could drink Coke all year round (not just on summery afternoons).
Sadly, Sundblom’s original oil painting no longer exists. Canvas was expensive, so he had to paint a new Santa over the top.
1936: ‘Me too’
Five years on, Santa is relaxing, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, revealing a hint of red underwear. The image appeared during the Great Depression in the US, when everyone needed a reminder of happier times.
Sundblom painted the image of Santa using a live model — his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. When Prentiss passed away, Sundblom used himself as a model, painting while looking into a mirror. Finally, he began relying on photographs to create the image of St. Nick.
1937: ‘Give and take, say I’
Saint Nick dons his red coat once more. His gloves are tucked into his belt while he stops to take a Coke and a turkey leg out of the fridge.
Ads that showed people leaving Cokes out for Santa on Christmas Eve inspired lots of families to do the same.
People loved the Coca-Cola Santa images and paid such close attention to them that when anything changed, they sent letters to The Coca-Cola Company. One year, Santa's large belt was backwards (perhaps because Sundblom was painting via a mirror). Another year, Santa Claus appeared without a wedding ring, causing fans to write asking what happened to Mrs. Claus.
1941: ‘Thirst asks nothing more’
Santa reclines next to a cooler, drinking from a Coca-Cola Contour Bottle with a sack full of toys.
The original oil paintings Sundblom created were adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines and on store displays, billboards, posters, calendars and plush dolls. Many of those items today are popular collectibles.
1949: ‘Travel refreshed’
In the 40s Coca-Cola introduced "Sprite Boy," a character who appeared with Santa Claus in Coca-Cola advertising throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Sprite Boy, who was also created by Sundblom, got his name due to the fact that he was a sprite, or an elf. (It wasn’t until the 1960s that Coca-Cola introduced the popular beverage Sprite.)
1953: ‘The pause that refreshes’
'The pause that refreshes’ was one of the longest-lasting slogans in Coke history, first introduced in 1929. Do you remember it?
1961: ‘When friends drop in’
Santa tries to hush the family dog who is alerting his owners to a big, red intruder.
From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.
1964: The final Santa
The dog in Sundblom’s 1964 Santa Claus painting was actually a gray poodle belonging to the neighborhood florist. But Sundblom wanted the dog to stand out in the holiday scene, so he painted the animal with black fur.
The children who appear with Santa in Sundblom’s paintings were based on Sundblom's neighbours — two little girls. So he changed one to a boy in his paintings.
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. These paintings are some of the most prized pieces in the art collection in the company’s archives department and have been on exhibit around the world.
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.
We still use Sundblom’s Santa at Christmas time – in adverts and on packaging. This enduring image of a merry, kind, old man with rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes is exactly how the world loves to see Santa.
Can't get enough of Coca-Cola at Christmas? Find out your nearest Truck Tour stop here.