Before I begin this post proper, I feel I need to point out that “Coke” is the most common abbreviation in the UK used for Coca-Cola. As far as I understand most other countries (including English speaking ones) tend to say “Cola”. But Cola can mean one of several brands of a similar drink (including supermarket own brands). I think that’s why people, in England at least, still use the word “Coke” for Coca-Cola. Now, to what I wanted to share…
It seems in this day of so much easy access to information (both true and false) people still blithely believe and spread “urban myths”, and it is around this time of year when one about Santa Claus and Coca-Cola still seems to get mentioned. This year, within less than a week, I heard it from two groups of people.
The claim is that Santa Claus was not dressed in red and white until Coca-Cola used him in their adverts, changing his look forever. This is simply not true.
Coca-Cola’s adverts with Santa Claus began in the 1930s. But Santa had been dressed in red with white fur for at least nearly a hundred years before that. In fact, we can see that since his creation by Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore.
I say they “created” him. That is, Washington Irving basically attributed to Saint Nicolas many of the mythical aspects that Santa Claus is known for today: you know, the bit about him flying through the sky and coming down chimneys to give presents to (good) children.
It all started as a joke that was not supposed to be taken seriously!
Clement Clark Moore then moved the night which St Nicolas (Santa Claus) delivered presents from St Nicolas’s Eve (December 5th) to Christmas Eve (December 24th), and there he has stayed for most of us. (Though I believe that in several countries in Europe, St Nicolas’s day is still celebrated, and children put out boots, or little shoes, or clogs on the evening before, to be filled with sweets).
Another claim doing the rounds about Santa Claus is that he is basically a modern day “Odin”. Again, this plainly is not true. Although started as a joke, Santa Claus is grounded firmly in the story of “St Nicolas”.
St Nicolas was a bishop. Bishops wore red cloaks. So, when the New York historical society commissioned their first painting of Santa Claus, naturally he was painted in red. This was nearly a hundred years before Coca-Cola used him in their adverts, and fifty years before Coca-Cola was even invented!
Here is a timeline of events up to Coca-Cola’s first use of Santa Claus:
1809 Washington Irving produces his first fanciful stories about St Nicolas, aka Santa Claus.
1823 Clement Clarke Moore anonymously publishes a poem “A Visit from St Nicolas“, better known by its first line, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas“, moving St Nicolas delivering presents from December 5th to December 24th. He also gave quite a few of the characteristics to Santa Claus’ form, which would be used in pictures and stories of him to this day.
1837 the New York Historical Society commissions their first painting of Santa Claus, by Robert Walter Weir, clearly dressed in red.
1863 Thomas Nast began illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. Most of these are in black and white, so it is difficult to say what colour he would have worn to start with.
1881 Thomas Nast’s possibly most well-known colour drawing has Santa wearing red. It is thought to be largely civil war propaganda (Santa Claus was on the side of the Americans), but there is no doubt that he has taken inspiration from the previous artists and writers, in particular Clement Clark Moore. Thomas Nast is also often referred to as “the man who invented Santa Claus“, so in the scheme of things, this is yet more proof that it was not Coca-Cola who turned him red!
1886 Coca-Cola invented (see How was Coca-Cola invented?)
1915 White Rock Ginger Ale start using Santa Claus in their Christmas adverts. (See Santa Claus and White Rock from 1915). Again, most of these are in black and white, but:
1923 first full colour advert I can find by White Rock Ginger Ale using Santa Claus, in red and white, looking very much recognisable as we know him today!
1931 Coca-Cola first use Santa Claus in their Christmas adverts. They themselves claim that did “play a big role in shaping the jolly character we know today” – from the White Rock adverts I would dispute that, though maybe they made it world famous. The point is, as we have seen, they did not change him much, nor deliberately dress him in red (see Did Coca-Cola create Santa Claus?); the artwork was very much based on what came before.
So why did this rumour about Coca-Cola changing Santa Claus into red even come about? Well, here I can only conjecture that it was started by some folks who simply don’t look into history at all.
Santa Claus came from the United States to the UK around the 1850s, being well established by the 1880s. Prior to his arrival it seems that people didn’t tend to give (many) presents on Christmas Day. Presents were given on New Year’s Day. However, one character Britain already had was “Father Christmas”. Britons are (or were – maybe not so much these days) prone to “personify” things. So we have “Father Time”, “Mother Nature”, “Jack Frost”, and so on (if you can think of any others). (Yes, the United States sometimes continued this habit, with Uncle Sam, for example).
And so for a long time we had “Father Christmas” – probably very similar to Father Time: an old man with a long grey or white beard, but who had no association with St Nicolas. The “spirits of Christmas” in Charles Dicken’s Novel “A Christmas Carol” were probably very much based on this idea. Remember, in 1843 “Santa Claus” had not reached England yet, and St Nicolas was still very much associated with St Nicolas’s Day, not Christmas Day!
The point is Father Christmas was never based on a real person, let alone a bishop. So people could paint him any way they pleased. And they did. Generally, he was always an old man with a beard, but in terms of clothes, you can find him wearing green, blue, purple, brown – even leather. But when Santa Claus was imported to England from the States, the two characters got blended into one, and so the standardised red St Nicolas (remember, from the bishop’s robe) gradually took over. Today, people refer to Santa Claus as Father Christmas (and, dare I say, vice versa). Thus we find paintings of “Santa Claus” type figures, that were actually Father Christmas figures, and of course, blending as they did, they were even sometimes labelled as St Nicolas!
So, my conjecture is simply that some folks who did not understand this history came across a picture of a figure they perceived as “Santa Claus” (or maybe even labelled as such) in green (say), and then saw the Coca-Cola advert with him in red, put two and two together and came up with an urban myth that is still being spread today.
For most of these tales you do not need to do anywhere near as much digging as I have done to find the truth. For an excellent history of Santa Claus, covering more than I have mentioned, I can recommend A Christmas Cornucopia, by Mark Forsyth, ISBN 978-0-241-26773-8.
All pictures are believed to be in the public domain and/or are used under the Fair Use principle.