The making of Santa

Coca-Cola’s jolly ad defined St. Nick for my generation — and well beyond

Photo by Sergey Kohl / Shutterstock.com
Photo by Sergey Kohl / Shutterstock.com

When I was a little girl, Santa Claus came to my house late at night every Christmas Eve and left me a special Christmas gift.

Now, I never actually spied Santa during these nocturnal visits. But I knew exactly what he looked like because I’d seen so many pictures of him in magazines, sipping a bottle of Coca-Cola.

The person who created Santa Claus in those early Coca-Cola advertisements was commercial artist Haddon Sundblom. Clement Clarke Moore’s ’Twas the Night Before Christmas poem (A Visit from St. Nicholas) inspired his characterization.

Sundblom crafted another icon, the Quaker Oats man. He also painted pinup girls for calendar art. But the Coca-Cola Santa Claus was his signature offering, and it made a powerful impression on me.

To my child’s mind, there was something magical about Sundblom’s Santa. He represented Christmas, surely the most magical time of the year. But it was more than that. The way Sundblom painted Santa — jolly, fat, smiling — there was nothing artificial about him.

He was real. He came to bring joy and do only good things.

I can’t recall any other image — save the Dick and Jane illustrations on my kindergarten reader — that so favorably impressed me as a child. (I could identify with Jane.)

Terrorized by cleanser

Indeed, the Sundblom Santa was the antithesis of the Old Dutch Cleanser girl.

In her blue dress, red clogs and odd white hat, I found her so terrifying my mother had to hide the Dutch Cleanser can. She carried a stick and was running.

The campaign said: “Old Dutch Cleanser chases dirt — makes everything spic and span.”

I had nightmares about that, thinking she was chasing me.

I also found the girl’s hat intimidating. A typical Dutch bonnet, with “wings” or flaps that hid her face, it was very scary, sort of like a Halloween mask or a nun’s headpiece.

33 years and counting

All of this says much about the visual images that affect children.

In those early-1940s, pre-television days, the illustrations in popular family magazines — along with popular movies — provided the bulk of the “pictures” of the world we lived in. They were pictures that served to shape our young minds.

My vivid recollections also speak to the power of advertising. Obviously, given its longevity, Coca-Cola’s portrayal of Santa — as a warm human being enjoying a coke — enchanted many a little girl like me and appealed to countless other people (while also generating sales, surely).

“Sundblom’s Santa first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post magazine Christmas ad in 1931,” said retired Twin Cities Coca-Cola sales and marketing team member Gregory Dorr. “The company continued depicting him that way for the next 33 years, with the final version in 1964; and it is still being used today.”

Indeed, Sundblom is often credited as creating the modern image of Santa Claus.

It still appears in the likes of children’s books, Christmas cards and outdoor flags — like the one flying in the cold December air just outside my door right now.

Merry Christmas!


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Write her at chall@mngoodage.com.