The Coca-Cola Santa created by artist Haddon Sundblom is given credit for both standardising and humanising the character of “Father Christmas”.
Before Sundblom created the popular, modern-day image of a jolly, friendly Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas was portrayed differently within various regions and cultures. He occasionally was even seen as a frightening or spooky character. But in 1931 and for the ensuing 33 years, Sundblom transformed Santa into the familiar, jovial old man the world recognises today.
When The Coca-Cola Company originally commissioned Haddon Sundblom to create the Santa Claus artwork, Sundblom was so well-known as an illustrator that he received fees as high as US$ 1,000 per painting. This was a substantial amount in the 1920s and America’s Depression-era 1930s when a loaf of bread sold for around eight cents, a dozen eggs was approximately 40 cents, a half-gallon of milk cost less than 30 cents, a gallon of gas was about 19 cents, a four-door automobile could be had for under $ 700 and the average price of a home was roughly $ 6,000. In the long-running series of paintings, Sundblom’s Coca-Cola Santa mixes moments of innocent mischief with pauses for a refreshing Coke in a number of Yuletide scenes, including:
- Engaging excited children and beloved family pets
- Waving at a flying toy helicopter while playing with a toy train
- Raiding a refrigerator
- Relaxing in a chair, with reindeer nearby
- Reviewing his famous list of “good boys and girls”
The children who appear with Santa Claus in some of Sundblom’s paintings were based on the artist’s neighbors in Arizona. Although the two youngsters living next door were both girls, Sundblom simply changed one to a boy in his paintings.
The dog in the 1964 original Santa Claus painting by Sundblom was actually a grey poodle belonging to the neighbourhood florist. Sundblom illustrated the animal with black fur to make the dog stand out in the holiday scene.
It is a common misconception that today’s Santa Claus wears a red coat because red is the colour associated with Coca-Cola. In fact, Santa appeared in a red coat in numerous earlier written accounts and illustrations before Sundblom painted him for Coca-Cola advertising.
People loved the Coca-Cola Santa images and paid such close attention to them that, when any change was noticed, they sent letters to The Coca-Cola Company. One year, Santa’s large belt was shown backwards (perhaps because Sundblom used himself as a model and sometimes painted Santa’s features by looking in a mirror), creating a groundswell of reader mail. Another time, Santa appeared without a wedding ring, compelling fans to ask what happened to Mrs. Claus.
The Coca-Cola Santa Claus by Sundblom was not the first version of the acclaimed North Pole resident to appear in Coca-Cola advertisements. In the 1920s the Company ran some ads featuring a rather stern-looking Santa, and in 1930 Coke hired artist Fred Mizen to illustrate a department store Santa impersonator pausing at a soda fountain.
But when Sundblom was given the assignment to draw Santa in 1931, he took the notion of the jolly old elf in a new direction. He depicted not an ordinary man dressed up as Santa, but the real Saint Nicholas who travels around the world and touches the lives of families everywhere. Sundblom’s reflections of Santa were so authentic that they broadly influenced the way people imagined the true look of Saint Nicholas and inspired other illustrators who have created their own interpretations of Saint Nick.
The Coca-Cola Company originally decided to link Santa Claus and Christmas to its flagship soft drink because people in those days commonly regarded Coca-Cola as a drink almost exclusively for the hot, summertime period. The first advertisements of the 1920s and 1930s that included Santa helped remind consumers that Coca-Cola was ideal for every month of the year, including the winter holidays.
Coca-Cola introduced more than 40 Coca-Cola Santa paintings by Sundblom from 1931 through 1964. In some years, different scenes with Santa were produced for separate placements in print advertisements and on billboards, respectively.
Along with print advertisements, Sundblom’s Santa has appeared on Coca-Cola store displays, billboards, calendars, posters, drinking glasses, serving trays and numerous other promotional pieces and gift items, quickly making them collectibles. Some cardboard retail displays that sold for less than one American dollar in the 1930s and ’40s have been valued today in amounts ranging from US$ 500 to more than US$ 1,500 by Coca-Cola memorabilia collectors.