If you hear someone confidently and knowingly state “…you do know that the look of Santa with red suit and stuff is thanks to Coca-Cola…” then feel free to correct them on this myth.
Of course Coca-Cola have been quite happy to perpetuate the
misleading lie myth as it’s good publicity for them.
Way back in 1931 Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by them to paint Santa Claus and ever since 1933 their adverts have been an evolution from that original work. Here’s one from 1937…
However, the jolly fat man was already a well known character in a red suit from at least 130 years before that. And in fact there’s imagery of the Bishop of Myra (15 March 270 – 6 December 343) wearing red, a white beard and doing so many wonderful things he was also known as “Nicholas the Wonderworker” and after sainthood “Saint Nicholas”.
Saint Nicholas made such an impact that he went on to become a legend (i.e. made-up character) called Sinterklaas – sound familiar, as it’s that name which directly led to Santa Claus though that’s a whole story in itself.
Back to the imagery as this is an art site, and it would appear that the cartoonist Thomas Nast was mainly responsible for his modern look. Here’s one of the earliest from 1863 distributing gifts to Union troops on the cover of Harper’s Weekly which is where he worked.
And another, more well-known image from 1881.
He drew him for over 30 years and the latter images with a bright red coat almost certainly served as the inspiration for the Coca Cola’s Santa Claus.
Coca Cola hadn’t even been invented when these images were published, let alone thinking about advertising the product !!
Here’s a far more recent pastel sketch from a little-known and unpublished artist – could it be Santa? There’s a twinkle in the eye but he’s looking a bit miserable. Perhaps he’s fed up with hearing the Coke story yet again.