Roderick Taylor, LWN columnist

Roderick Taylor

It’s amazing how many cherished holiday traditions were created by folks trying to sell us more stuff. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, for example, is a beloved way to start the holiday morning, and it exists as nothing more than a two-hour commercial for a department store chain. You’d likewise be surprised to discover that the image we all carry in our heads of what Santa Claus really looks like, was created for Coca Cola.

Nineteenth century illustrations featuring Santa show a rather foreboding bearded character in an ankle-length hooded coat. The most popular images were those of the great political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, and featured a Santa wearing what you’d swear was a suit of long underwear. Many of the other illustrations of Santa from that era were downright scary.

Coke had a unique challenge in the early 20th century: how do you sell a product consumed almost exclusively away from home in summer, for home use in winter? It’s tough to believe today, but there was a time when soft drinks were considered a rare special occasion treat, so the problem most parents had back then about buying soda was simply, why? The wonderful thing about the soft drink business was, and still is, that if you can get it in the home, it’s gone.

The period from 1880 to the 1930s is considered the golden age of illustration. Artists like N.C. Wyeth were creating wonderful paintings for classic boys books, like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped.” James Montgomery Flagg illustrated war bond and recruiting posters, like the “I Want You for the U.S. Army!” broadsheet that begat our image of Uncle Sam. Norman Rockwell crafted scenes for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post that reminded Americans of what our better selves, and every day lives, really looked like.

In Chicago, an unknown illustrator named Haddon Sundblom was tasked in 1931 with creating a series of images of Santa Claus holding a bottle of Coca Cola for the firm’s Christmas ads. As J.R. Taylor and Barbara Fah described it in their book “Dream of Santa,” “Disliking the cheap costumes and meager looks common to department store, and charity Santas, Sundblom countered with abundance — a lavish use of fur and leather (belt, boots and gloves were all massive), a billowing beard and a waist so ample that it required a belt and suspenders. Santa as seen by Sundblom provided an image that fit perfectly, a sense of instant recognition that glowed with warmth and overwhelmed disbelief.”

Sundblom’s client knew a good thing when they saw it and they commissioned new art every year until 1963. Most year’s required three different illustrations that would be used in Coke’s assorted media; color print ads on the inside cover of magazines, billboards and in-store point of purchase sales materials. The ubiquitous appeal of the art was so strong that it prompted children of the era to eschew the traditional glass of milk, leaving Santa a plate of cookies and a Coke instead.

The man who raised Santa Claus passed on in 1976, but not before contributing a few other enormous icons to America’s commercial culture, for it was Sundblom who first illustrated Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man. The paintings he created in a day or two, and sold for $1,000 each in the day, now fetch six figure prices, and why not? How can you put a price tag on an original painting of Santa Claus, by the man who defined what he looked like?

The wonderful thing about the tradition that Sundblom developed is that there is not a year that goes by that someone doesn’t use his image of Santa on everything from glassware for a fast food chain to coasters for a gasoline company. As Coca Cola’s archivist Phil Mooney confided to me in 2004, “As a body of work Sundblom’s paintings are the crown jewels of Coca-Cola.”