Historian: Coca-Cola didn't invent modern Santa

Did Coke invent the modern-day Santa Claus?

Of course not, but it's such a widely-held belief that it has become an urban myth. Even snopes.com, a Web site that tries to debunk popular misconception, has an article devoted to the subject.

Coca-Cola Co. archivist Phil Mooney gets wild questions about the world-famous beverage all year, but the Santa questions start flying like magical reindeer during the holidays.

According to Mooney, all Coca-Cola wanted to do was get people to drink more soda during cold months.

“In the 1930s, soft drinks were a very seasonal beverage. You’d drink them in the summer and maybe the spring and fall, but winter was a down time for us,” he said Friday.

Enter Santa and his red suit. Red is Coke’s corporate color. There’s your ad campaign.

“(Santa’s) going to travel all over the world, he’s going to get thirsty, so why not let him have a Coke?” Mooney said.

Putting Santa in that red suit wasn't Coca-Cola's idea. You can thank American editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast for that. His depiction of Santa Claus, drawn in 1863 for Harper's Weekly created the icon children know and love today. Before then, most depictions of Santa Claus showed a tall, thin man in clothing of various colors. Nast drew him as the bearded, plump man in red known today.

“Sometimes you get credit for things you don’t do, and sometimes you don’t get credit for things you actually do,” Mooney said.

The company does tip its hat to illustrator Haddon Sundblom for reinforcing the image of the "modern" Santa – the chubby and plump right jolly old elf, Mooney said.  Sundblom, like Nast before him, looked to the 1822 Clement Clark Moore poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") for inspiration.

Coke commissioned Sundblom to draw Santa advertisements for the company – a job that he did for more than three decades. His interpretations of Santa appeared in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and Collier’s.

The Santa drawings would change each year, but it was still the same person in the red suit, often with soft drink in hand.

Many of the American artist's original oil paintings are on display year-round at the World of Coke Museum in downtown Atlanta. More are added during the holidays.

So, long gone were the days of Santa perhaps showing up in a green suit, maybe looking a little dour or business-like or like he actually needed to feast on some more Christmas ham.

“His vision of what Santa looked like became what most people thought about when they thought about Christmas,” Mooney said.

“And that – what I call the myth about Coke creating the costuming – I think comes up because his work still permeated the American households.”

** See more Sundblom Santa art