Have you ever wondered why Santa is rather a rotund fella all dressed in red with a jolly disposition? I had assumed that Santa was the stuff of fairytales lovingly passed down through generations. The true story of our current incarnation of Santa is a fascinating advertising success story, and these days Santa is well and truly one of our most loved and enduring brands.
The lineage of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas, born sometime around 280 A.D. who lived near modern-day Turkey. Luck our current day model he was know for his kindness and benevolence - which led to him at one stage becoming the most popular saint there was. Connections have also been drawn to the Germanic god Odin, who rode across the sky on an eight-legged horse. The Christianization of the Germans left Odin behind but kept the concept intact.
St. Nick was particularly well-liked in Holland, where he gained the nickname Sinter Klaas.
In Dutch traditions, Sinter Klaas wears bishops robes and goes around the country finding out which children have been good or bad. After the Protestant Reformation, gift giving switched from the feast day on the 6th to Christmas Eve.
Sinter Klaas crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the Dutch, who celebrated his feast in New York, and with the Germans who celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas in Pennsylvania. In New York, the increasingly popular Sinter Klaas was alternately described as a rascal with a blue hat and yellow stockings, and a man with a broad-brimmed hat and 'Flemish trunk hose.'
Another inspiration for modern day Santa comes from England's Father Christmas, who worn green and lived at the North Pole
This figure dates back to 17th century England. Most pictures of Father Christmas before 1880 showed him wearing a big green coat. He wasn't much a gift-giver: he preferred wandering from house to house, feasting with random families.
This legendary figure merged with Sinter Klaas once they both arrived to the New World.
But it wasn't until Coca-Cola got its hands on Santa that he became standardized in his appearance
As Coca-Cola ramped up their holiday advertising in the 1920s, they wanted to move away from the strict looking Santa that had appeared in magazine advertising previously. Coke turned to illustrator Haddon Sundblom for this project in 1931. Sundblom would create a more loveable Santa: embracing children, raiding the fridge and of course sipping bottles of Coca-Cola.
The Coca-Cola Santa became the most popular of all, running in Coke ads for 35 years and appearing throughout popular culture.
Sundblom continued to create original Santa Claus/Coke ads until 1964. The ads became so popular that rumours of Coke having invented Santa began to circulate, despite the fact that Santa had appeared in advertisements for other products well before Coke's introduction in the 1930s.
Today, Santa Claus has been updated for modern times but retains his classic look
Santa's workshop may now be a mechanised assembly line, but Santa continues to ride to his sleigh all over the world, delivering presents in his red suit. The endurance of his look is a testament to fantastic advertising, as well as a sentimentality that thousands of years of tradition has helped embed in our collective consciousness.
So how do we view Santa? Most of us still think of him as a jolly benefactor but then there are some that can no longer separate this figure from the commercialisation of christmas. Still we would have to agree that he is well loved by kiddies everywhere.