Yesterday on Instagram I saw a influencer I follow post a “fact” on her stories that the “image we know of Santa, with his red coat and rosy cheeks was invented by Coca-Cola in 1931”. While not entirely untrue it’s…mostly untrue. So let’s unpack this.
St Nicholas of Myra
Santa Claus originates from St Nicholas of Myra (270 – 343 AD), who is known for being a generous man and a gift giver. He is also the patron saint of sailors too, fun fact. St Nick was (and still is) extremely popular in Europe. One of his most famous stories is of him anonymously giving gold to a poor man to pay for his daughters’ dowries.
The history of St Nick is complicated. His most famous early biography dates to around 800 AD, a good 400 – 500 years after Nick’s death, but there are indications that he was really around, buildings dedicated to him etc. His festival is on 6 December (Julian Calendar) or 19 December (Georgian Calendar – the one most of the world uses now.)
You can learn more about St Nicholas on the my podcast, here.
The middle ages roll around and (although there are pre-Christian versions of Sinterklaas) this is when people begin to celebrate the festival of Sinterklaas. Originally a time to help the poor and give to children (by putting money or presents in their shoes) it was also occpanined by a feast and drinking. This would happen from 6 Decmember until 28 Decemember and one of the local children would act as the “bishop”, sometimes acting out scenes from St Nick’s life.
The reformation (1500 – 1600) changed things. Protestants such as Martin Luther changed the gift giver to Christ (or ChristKindl – Christ Child) and moved the gift giving day from 6 December to Christmas Eve. Protestants weren’t happy with the way saints were treated like a “cult” and some places were banned from holding St Nicholas festivities. However, even in the newly independent Dutch Republic (1588 – 1795), a Protestant country, the St Nicholas was still very popular amogst the people and festivals in the streets and in family homes kept the tradition alive.
America Gets Involved
After the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam), who had kept the Sinterklaas tradition alive, began to revamp the story. In the 1770s the New York Gazetteer said:
The feast of “St. a Claus” was celebrated “by the descendants of the ancient Dutch families, with their usual festivities.”
Children’s books, comics and other publications began to use the figure. A writer named Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) featured Dutch settlers in his writing. His 1812 revisions to his work A History of New York contained a dream sequence where St Nicholas soared over treetops in a flying wagon.
From there the image progressed. In 1881 a cartoonist named Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902) began to draw images of Santa like the one below from 1881.
This image appeared on 1 January 1881 in Harper’s Weekly. Some even think that Santa’s North Pole dwellings originate from Nast too.
After this Santa made his way back over the Atlantic to England and then back into Europe.
Did Coca-Cola Make Him Red?
Nast’s illustration in Harper’s Weekly appeared in Black and White (though you can find colourised versions on the internet). So, who did make him red? Well in 1875 a man named Louis Prang (1824 – 1909) printed a series of postcards with Santa in a red costume.
Was Prange the fist to draw him in red? Who knows? Probably not. But clearly, he pre-dated Coke. In 1931 Coke employed Swedish born illustrator Haddon Sundblom (1899 – 1976) to create a Santa for their adverts who was fat and jolly and dressed in red. Hence why people think that coke made Santa red.
So there it is, a really quick run down. Merry Christmas, y’all.