The invention of Santa Claus

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Haddon Sundblom’s first Coca-Cola Santa Claus campaign from 1931.

Haddon “Sunny” Sundblom was born to Swedish parents in a small town on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan in 1899. By his twenties he was working as a successful illustrator.

Although hardly a household name today, Sundblom left quite a legacy, because in 1931 he was commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company to draw Santa Claus for a festive advertising campaign.

At the time there was no set way to depict St Nic.

In some historical illustrations he was shown as a rather stern character, dressed in dark animal furs.

In others he is shown wearing something akin to a wizard’s outfit, complete with embroidered stars.

The red coat and hat with a white trim, coupled with a rotund body, broad black belt and boots, and a big fluffy beard, was becoming popular with artists in the early 20th Century, but Santa’s image was still up for interpretation.

And so from his studio on the eighth floor of Chicago’s Wrigley Building Sundblom set about creating a definitive look for the old man.

Taking inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ (better known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas’), Sundblom decided to make Father Christmas as genial as possible – a broadly grinning, rosy cheeked, big bellied ball of happiness at the very heart of Yuletide.

As luck would have it Sundblom had a neighbour, a retired salesman named Lou Prentiss, who looked just the part, and became the model for the first painting.

All this met Coca-Cola’s objective of associating their sugary syrup with warm and fuzzy feelings, and of prompting people to guzzle chilled soft drinks all year round, even in the midwinter.

And so Sundblom was asked to continue creating original drawings of Santa Claus in festive ads for Coca-Cola until 1964. His art forms the basis of their Christmas campaigns to this day.

Ads featuring Sundblom’s Santa have now appeared in magazines and on billboards, on labels and screens, throughout the world, for 85 years.

This version of Santa Claus is now firmly embedded in the collective consciousness, and looks set to remain long after the last bottle of Coke has gone flat.

Haddon Sundblom enjoys a Coke in 1964 in front of his final Christmas campaign.

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