Father Christmas through the ages
According to Betterdige’s law, any headline that ends in a question mark can normally be answered by the word ‘no’. And considering this article is in the marketing myths section, you think this would be the case here; Coca-Cola did not turn Father Christmas red. This is more or less true; however, Coca-Cola did play a role in standardising our modern idea of the Father Christmas that is shown on television, Christmas Cards, and of course adverts.
Over the years Father Christmas, St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas has been portrayed very differently. He has been a gnome, a bishop and ‘chubby and plump and a right jolly old elf’, but the earliest portrayals of him are either as Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived from 270 to 343 ad, or an unknown figure from pagan festivals. This unknown figure was dressed in a green hooded clock wearing holly, ivy or mistletoe and would visit people in the depths of winter to lift peoples spirts, whereas St Nicholas, the bishop, was shown wearing typical bishops’ robes – although not necessarily red.
But it was the Victorians (and Charles Dickens) who created our modern idea of Christmas - sending Christmas cards, Christmas pudding, the holly wreath, and of course Father Christmas. The Victorian image of Father Christmas was an older man with white hair, but he could be seen wearing anything from yellow, black, green, or blue. While there is no one figure who can be claimed to have ‘created’ the modern image Father Christmas, three figures helped to standardise the common image we all know today: Clement Clarke Moore, Thomas Nast, and Haddon Sundblom.
The modern idea of Father Christmas
You may not know the name Clement Moore, but you’ll probably know his work. He’s widely believed to be the author of the poem ‘A visit from St Nicholas’ (1823) which is better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, and it was this poem which created most of our modern ideas of Father Christmas. Moore took inspiration from the Dutch tradition of Sinter Klass but made a number of changes to appeal to the US market. Traditionally Dutch children would place clogs by the fire for Sinter Klass to fill with “pepernoten’ (sweets), but as US children were unfamiliar with clogs, Moore changed this to stockings hung by the fire. Likewise, to make the poem more ‘exciting’ he changed Father Christmas’ mode of transport from a white horse to a miniature sleigh’ pulled by ‘eight tiny reindeers’. And the reason Father Christmas only needed a miniature sleigh is that in the poem he’s described as an elf ‘dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot’.
This work (Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings, by Thomas Nast), identified by The British Library is free of known copyright restrictions.
It was Thomas Nast, a German-born American political cartoonist, who turned St Nicholas from an elf to a human. While Nast is best known for creating the elephant and donkey symbols which are now the standard symbols of the Democratic and the Republican party, he plays a major role in the Father Christmas story. Between 1863 and 1886 he drew Father Christmas in 33 cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. He took inspiration from Moore’s poem, but he wanted to make a political point. Father Christmas may have been shown as a jolly, fat man with a large white beard, and red fur suit, but there was one major difference; his jacket had the stars and stripes on it, and he was holding a puppet that looked suspiciously like the then confederate President Jeff Davis, being given as a present to the US troops. These cartoons were so popular that the magazine ran the series for 40 years (although eventually shown with a plain red coat), creating the modern image of Father Christmas.
So where did Coca-Cola fit into the story?
Coca-Cola doesn’t feature in the story until the 1920’s. Christmas was a time where sales of soft drinks were low, and Coca-Cola started running an ad campaign in an attempt to boost sales. However, these ads were very different to the Coca-Cola ads we are familiar with today. They showed a man dressed up as Father Christmas (looking like Nast’s version) but standing outside a department store but in 1931, they changed their approach and commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint Father Christmas with a far more festive feal. Sundblom took inspiration from Moore & Nast’s version but modelled the face of Father Christmas based on his friend and retired salesman Lou Prentiss.
The look of Sundblom’s Father Christmas is now the version that most people are familiar with. Coca-Cola may not have created him, but they helped standardise the image we have today. Harper’s Weekly had been running Christmas versions of the magazine for 40 years prior to this version, but it’s reach was relatively limited compared to that of Coca-Cola’s ads. And the reason these ads had such a dramatic impact is that the media landscape was very different back in 1931. Television wasn’t mainstream, colour cinemas were rare, and newspapers were still black and white. Consequently, any full colour billboards attracted considerable attention, especially ones that were everywhere. So, while Coca-Cola didn’t create the modern image of Father Christmas, they did help standardise the image we know of him.