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Why does Santa wear red?

20 December 2023

Chris from East Suffolk's History for Fun group talks about the history of the depiction of Santa Claus in popular culture, and the origins of his red costume.

A decorative image of Father Christmas putting presents out underneath the tree.

Many people think Coca Cola invented Santa wearing red, but that is not the case...

In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer. An English Father Christmas is first recorded in his traditional red and white outfit in a woodcut of 1653.

In the 19th Century Dutch emigrants took their story of a legendary gift-bringer called Sinterklaas to America, where he eventually became known as Santa Claus.

Santa was originally based on the St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and his red robes in the 4th century,
There are records of Santa wearing various coloured costumes, but red was by far the most popular and became known as the quintessential Father Christmas outfit.

His American clothes are distinctly different. Still wearing earth tones in the early 19th century, one of the earliest drawings of Saint Nicholas featured a slender, bearded man in a coat with stars and a night cap.

On 3rd January 1863 the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine was by the famed illustrator Thomas Nast. It shows Santa Claus visiting a Civil War camp and distributing presents to Union troops.

Between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly magazine ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. He developed an image of Santa very close to the modern-day one. From these engravings the concept of Santa's workshop and the idea of writing letters to him also developed.

Over the next few decades, Santa in the US underwent a ‘wardrobe’ change. The evolving Santa suit featured the fur-lined red coat and matching, cuffed trousers and night cap, a large belt and buckle, and black boots.

Santa became portlier in Nast’s 1881 illustration, “A Merry Old Santa Claus,” that accompanied the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Nast's tenure at Harper's Weekly ended with his Christmas illustration of December 1886.
The Coca-Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The advert featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis.

In 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself and not as a man dressed as Santa. His Santa made his debut in 1931’s Coca-Cola advertisement “My Hat’s Off to The Pause That Refreshes”.

Again, for inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem and Moore's description of St. Nicholas led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa.

Sundblom created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964, but for several decades to follow, Coca-Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Sundblom’s original works.

The dog in Sundblom’s 1964 Santa Claus painting was actually a grey poodle but Sundblom painted the animal with black fur. The children who appear with Santa, in the painting, were based on Sundblom's neighbours, two little girls. However, he changed one girl to a boy in his painting. Coca Cola has continued to use Santa in their adverts since the 1930s.

In 1995 they also introduced the 'Coca-Cola Christmas truck' in the 'Holidays are coming' TV adverts using only three trucks. The red truck, covered with lights and with the classic 'Coke Santa' on its sides is now a famous part of recent Christmas history. The adverts are tweaked each year, and the lorry usually travels around the UK in December.

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