Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa Claus, 1881 - Wikimedia Commons.

“Once upon a time, far, far away, a man sat in front of a canvas and set his mind to work. He recalled his research and studied the pages of illustrations before him – the dozens of crude drawings and bright illustrations that, for decades, had plastered advertising hoardings and pamphlets at Christmas time.

All showed a man of stocky stature. All had a bushy white beard and a fine, warm coat.

Here he was: Father Christmas. Saint Nicholas.

The man’s eyes wandered the many images. Some coats blazed gold. Some were a leathery brown. Most were green.

The man tapped his lips and picked out a paintbrush, his focus returning to the empty canvas in front of him, his ear tortured by the ticking clock of his looming deadline.

He considered the paints before him and decided.

Today, Santa would wear red,…”

This was a real event that happened well over a century ago. It has guided our vision of Santa Clause ever since.

If I asked you where that man was sitting and for whom he was working, there’s a good chance that many of you reading this would say the same thing:


Coca-Cola: the company who made Santa red,…. Right?

Actually,… no.

The scene I’ve described happened a good 70 years before Coke began sharing an image of Santa swigging a highly-caffeinated, sugar-rich, carbonated beverage from a bottle. 1862, in fact.

The illustrator’s name was Thomas Nast and he worked for a magazine called Harper’s Weekly in New York. Thomas’s illustrations were wildly popular in their time and printed across America during and after the Civil War. He continued to draw and paint “Santa” in red for decades afterwards and it was he, more than any other single person, who fixed the view that the Jolly Fat Man should wear red robes.

Coke simply followed an established trend.

So why do many people think that “Coke” created the modern image of Santa?

In the 1930s Coke developed an advertising campaign that removed the traditional long pipe that Santa often smoked in illustrations and replaced it with a bottle of Coke. This is an extremely famous image, largely because Coca-Cola themselves keep reprinting it, and have done for 90+ years.

Their message was “even Santa drinks Coke!”, and they successfully linked the red of his jacket with the red colour of their own branding.

But I don’t think the intention was ever to lay any claim to Santa himself. In fact, Coke themselves have gone to great lengths to dispel the myth over the years.

The accidental hijack came from the sheer popularity of the beverage nationally and internationally. While Nast’s paintings were popular for many years, even collecting into an album in 1890, they didn’t travel greatly beyond the East Coast of America – and certainly not overseas.

So, while the image of Father Christmas wearing Red had become widespread by the time of Coke’s take, the idea that there was a sole-initiator of this trend wasn’t widely understood.

Coke, being a huge organisation, even in the early 20th Century, inherited the mantle because their image travelled. As the memory of Nast’s work faded, the image that Coke presented endured, and so a myth was born.

As myth’s go, I’m sure it’s one that Coca-Cola executives don’t really mind all that much. I mean, is it really Christmas until we see the line of Coke trucks wending their way through the forest, as we do every year?

Well, yes. Though my wife might have a few things to say on how early that convoy should start their journey.

But that’s a discussion for next week,…