When most of us think of Santa Claus, we think of a large jolly man with a big beard and a red suit.
You might be surprised to find out that was not always the case.
In fact, people used to imagine Santa Claus as a lot of things until several decades ago, when the Coca-Cola Company began marketing a specific interpretation of Santa in its Christmas advertisements.
That interpretation - inspired by the 1922 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" - was first illustrated by Michigan's own Haddon Sundblom in 1931.
Though several features of Santa - including his red coat and his bushy beard - had been described and illustrated in previous works before, the Coca-Cola advertisements were most instrumental in shaping the mainstream look of Santa that you see in many commercials, television shows and films.
In 1931 the company began placing Coca-Cola ads in popular magazines. Archie Lee, the D'Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. So Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.
For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Moore's description of St. Nick led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa. (And even though it's often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.)
Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared regularly in that magazine, as well as in Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and others.
Sundblom was born in 1899 in Muskegon and died in 1976 at age 76.
"Sundblom created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964, but for several decades to follow, Coca-Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Sundblom’s original works," the Coca-Cola website says.
Contact Brian Manzullo: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrianManzullo.
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