SLIDESHOW: The History of Santa Claus & Coca-Cola Ads

The Coca-Cola Company and the Christmas holiday go way back—all the way to advertising that began in the 1920s.

Whether it’s Santa reading a letter from a child and enjoying a Coke, or raiding a home’s refrigerator in search of a “cold one,” Santa and his Coca-Cola go hand-in-hand. Indeed, many iconic Santa Claus images aren’t just timeless illustrations that have been handed down over the years, they actually started out as images commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to help associate Santa and their products.

Coca Cola Christmas Ads History

Prior to 1931, that big, jolly man in the red suit with a fluffy white beard was often depicted as everything from a tall, old, painfully gaunt man to a creepy-looking elf. According to a history article on Coca-Cola’s website, “…when Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1862, Santa was a small elflike figure who supported the Union. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years, changing the color of his coat from tan to the red he’s known for today.”

The first Coca-Cola Santa ads featured a strict-looking St. Nick, in the vein of Thomas Nast. Then, in the 1930s, the advertising agency repping Coke wanted a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom was hired for the job. He turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). According to Coke’s website:

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.)

Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared regularly in that magazine, as well as in Ladies Home JournalNational GeographicThe New Yorker and others.

While other artists have come along to create Coca-Cola’s Santa, it was Sunblom’s that most illustrators modeled their work after. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Check out the slide show above, as well as the video below, for more historic images.

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