The jolly, red-suited Santa Claus is an iconic Christmas figure, delivering gifts to good boys and girls around the world on Christmas Eve. But Santa’s recognizable red costume is a relatively recent development. Prior to the 1930s, Santa was depicted in a variety of colors and styles. So when did Santa become synonymous with Coca-Cola red?
Santa’s Origins and Early Depictions
Santa Claus originated with the historical figure of St. Nicholas, a 4th century Christian bishop known for his generosity and gift-giving. Over the centuries, stories of St. Nicholas evolved into the larger-than-life character of Santa Claus.
In the 1800s, Santa was illustrated in a variety of ways. He was often shown wearing a green, tan, blue, or red coat with fur trim. Examples include an 1821 children’s book showing Santa in a tan coat, and an 1863 Harper’s Weekly illustration of Santa in a stars & stripes outfit.
Some key early Santa depictions:
|1821||Santa pictured in tan coat in the book The Children’s Friend|
|1863||Harper’s Weekly illustration shows Santa dressed in stars & stripes|
|1868||Santa wears a red coat and cap on the cover of Harper’s Weekly|
|1912||The White Rock Beverages Santa wears a long red coat|
As you can see, there was no standard depiction of Santa’s outfit in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Santa was shown in a variety of colors, including red, blue, tan, green, and brown.
Santa in Coca-Cola Advertising
Coca-Cola began incorporating Santa Claus into their holiday advertising in the 1920s. They commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa in ads every year from 1931 to 1964.
Sundblom modeled his Santa after the Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”). This poem described Santa as a jolly, heavyset man with twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks. However, the poem did not specify the color of Santa’s clothing.
For his Coca-Cola ads, Sundblom gave Santa a bright red suit with white fur trim. This eye-catching red & white costume aligned well with Coke’s branding. Sundblom’s annual illustrations established red as the official color of Santa’s outfit.
Here are a few examples of Sundblom’s Coca-Cola Santas over the years:
|1931||Santa appears in red coat in Sundblom’s first Coke ad|
|1942||Sundblom depicts Santa visiting soldiers during WWII|
|1950||Santa delivers Coke bottles in a red coat and black boots|
Sundblom painted Coke’s Christmas ads up until 1964. His consistent depictions of a red-suited Santa embedded the color into the public consciousness.
Why Red? Coca-Cola’s Motivations
Why did Coca-Cola choose red for Santa’s coat? The color choice was likely driven by several factors:
Coca-Cola’s brand colors were red and white, so a red-suited Santa matched their branding well. Advertising Santa with Coke products cohesively incorporated the soft drink.
Red is an energetic, inviting color that grabs people’s attention. A bright red Santa stood out in print ads and on billboards.
Although not yet standardized, red was already a traditional Santa color due to the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and earlier illustrations like White Rock’s red-coated Santa.
Distinction from Competition
No other beverage company had claimed Santa in their advertising at the time. A red-suited Santa helped Coca-Cola stand out from competitors.
Alignment with Christmas
Red evokes classic Christmas colors and decor. Connecting Santa with red strengthened his connection to the holidays.
So while Coca-Cola didn’t invent the red Santa suit, they played a key role in cementing red as the definitive color through Sundblom’s ubiquitous Santa illustrations.
Public Adoption of Red Santa
Coca-Cola’s ads were very successful in spreading the association of Santa with the color red. By the 1940s, most depictions of Santa showed him in Coca-Cola red.
Here are some examples of how a red-clad Santa permeated pop culture and merchandising in the mid-20th century:
|Year||Red Santa Appearances|
|1940||Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer children’s book published featuring red-suited Santa|
|1946||Red Santa figure sold in New York department stores|
|1953||Popular Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” released with lyric “He’s dressed all in fur from his head to his foot”|
|1957||Little Golden Book “Santa Claus” shows Santa in red suit|
Coke’s consistent Christmas advertising ensured Santa was red both inside and outside Coca-Cola branded content. By establishing red as the norm, Sundblom’s Santa paintings became the accepted depiction of this Christmas icon.
Modern Representations of Santa
Still Red After All These Years
Today, the red-suited Santa is still the standard image of Santa Claus. From films to parades to mall Santas, jolly old St. Nick is nearly always shown wearing his trademark red coat with white fur trim and a black belt.
Other common modern Santa features like black boots, rosy cheeks, and a long white beard stem back to Sundblom’s Coca-Cola paintings as well. His visions of Santa helped create the archetypical Santa we know today.
Rare Depictions with Different Colors
While red dominates, Santa is sometimes depicted in other festive colors:
- Green – In The Santa Clause movie, Tim Allen wears a green Santa suit
- Blue – In some cartoons and anime, Santa’s coat is blue
- White – A white Santa outfit is seen in some stop motion Christmas classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- Multicolor – Some illustrations show Santa wearing a coat woven with red, green, white, and gold threads
However, these colorful twists on Santa’s suit are uncommon. For most people, Santa just isn’t Santa without his red coat!
While legends of St. Nicholas date back centuries, the modern image of Santa Claus took shape in the early 20th century. Coca-Cola played a key role through their advertising campaigns featuring illustrator Haddon Sundblom’s depictions of a red-coated Santa. This helped cement red as the definitive Santa color by the 1940s. Today, red remains the expected Santa suit color, a testament to the nostalgia and power of Coca-Cola’s Christmas ads. So while Santa wasn’t always red, it’s impossible to imagine him any other way today!