Magazine article Marketing

The Great Santa Claus Hi-Jack Mystery

Magazine article Marketing

The Great Santa Claus Hi-Jack Mystery

Article excerpt

Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus -- true or false? Beverly Cramp looks at the origins of a famous fattie

He's plump, cheerful, and dressed in red and white. You may think he's always been that way. But Coca-Cola insiders will tell you it's no coincidence that today's department store Father Christmas wears their corporate colours.

Embedded deep in the Atlanta soft drinks giant's corporate consciousness is the idea that the modern Santa Claus was created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s as part of an advertising campaign. But did a corporate giant, even one as big as Coca-Cola, really have the power to invent Santa Claus?

What it certainly couldn't do was invent the idea of a mystery visitor who leaves gifts. That one was already taken in most parts of the world: he was St Nicholas, based on a fourth-century bishop, in Asia Minor; a dwarf or a goat in parts of Scandinavia; the white-robed girl, Kolyada, who in pre-revolutionary Russia arrived by sleigh on Christmas Eve with attendant carol singers, and the many religious gift-bearers associated with the Magi.

Santa Claus proper first evolved in the US with the arrival of Dutch immigrants. Their benevolent bishop, Sante Klaas, was his forerunner. In Europe, we preferred Father Christmas until the latter half of this century. The first full description of the US Santa dates from 1822 when an American professor of divinity, Dr Clement Clarke Moore, wrote "The Visit of St Nicholas" (now known as "The Night Before Christmas").

"His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry; His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow... He had a broad face, a little round belly, That shook when he laughed, like a bowl of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly elf..."

In 1863, Thomas Nast drew this St Nicholas in Harper's Illustrated Weekly. He's clad from neck to toe in what looks like a combination suit made of wool-like fur. He's a smallish elf or gnome, robust and red-faced with whiskers and a beard -- but no red coat in sight.

According to Lionel Lambourne, curator of prints and drawings at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a bit of a resident expert on the old man, "Nast's drawings of St Nicholas were the first real popularisation of Santa Claus."

There were other images that also stayed the course, and Santa popped up in all sorts of unlikely guises in different countries -- until 1931, when Coke was planning an advertising campaign to convince consumers that it was a year-round beverage. At that time consumers viewed Coke as a summer drink only.

The artist Haddon Sundblom -- described in Mark Pendergrast's controversial and unauthorised history of Coke For God, Country and Coca-Cola as a hard-drinking Swede" -- was commissioned to do a painting of Santa Claus intended for magazine advertisements.

"Magazines played a much greater part in advertising in those largely pre-television days and artists' renditions were quite common," says Ian Muir, manager of external affairs for Coca-Cola UK. According to Muir, "part of the ideal we wanted to create for Coca-Cola was one of fun, pleasure and enjoyment".

Pendergrast writes, "Sundblom's Santa was the perfect Coca-Cola man -- bigger than life, bright red, eternally jolly and caught in whimsical situations involving a well-known soft drink as his reward for a hard night's work of toy delivery. …

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