Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Nerd History: Must Be Santa!

Given some of the bizarre, out of date, offensive Christmas ads we saw last week, it's interesting to see the evolution of one of the classic icons of the Christmas season, the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. The image of Santa with a Coke is so ingrained in American culture at this point that Coca-Cola outright takes credit for forming this idea in our minds:

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.)

What's amusing about this entire thing is that, while the Coke Santa is the preeminent Santa in our minds, the image we know and love was created years earlier, and has well over 100 years of history to it at this point, and that's before factoring in The Night Before Christmas, first published in the 1820s.

Coke seems to rely more on those stupid polar bears these days (as someone from Massachusetts, polar bears and soft drinks will always refer to these guys), but you can rest easy this Christmas knowing that our idea of Santa isn't the fault of a sugary soft drink.

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