5. Modern Times

The modern Santa Claus derived from two images: St. Nicholas the elf-like gift bringer described by Moore, and a friendlier "Kriss Kringle" amalgam of the Christkindlein and Pelznickel figures. The Santa Claus figure, although not yet standardized, was ubiquitous by the late 19th century. Santa was portrayed as both large and small; he was usually round but sometimes of normal or slight build; and he dressed in furs (like Belsnickle) or cloth suits of red, blue, green, purple and even black. Clement Moore had clad Santa in fur, common dress for 18th century gentlemen. 

When one of Clement Moore's daughters did a calligraphy of version of her father's famous poem as a Christmas gift to her husband, in spite of her father's words, she dressed Saint Nicholas in a long green coat. In 1884, when Santa made his entrance at the Five Points Mission School, eight hundred wide eyed children saw him "wrapped in a great coat of Siberian wolf skins, over which his long beard hung down to his knees!"

In 1885, arrived the red Santa suit. A Boston printer named Louis Prang introduced the English custom of Christmas cards to America, and in 1885 he issued a card featuring a red-suited Santa. The chubby Santa with a red suit (like an "overweight superhero") began to replace the fur-dressed Belsnickle image and the multicolored Santas. 

In the early twentieth century, red Santa Claus suits became popular and were sold by department stores and mail-order houses such as Sears and Roebuck. By the middle of the nineteenth century, stores began referring to themselves as "Santa Claus headquarters." One of the first was J.W. Parkinson's in Philadelphia in 1841. The owner, Mr. Parkinson, had a real "Criscringle" come down a chimney above the door of his store right before the eyes of the children present. It was a great success and in 1846, Mr. Parkinson was advertising his store as "Kriss Kringle's Headquarters."

It took forty years for another store to catch on and expand the idea. The Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, became the father of department Santas when in 1890 it hired Edgar, a Scottish immigrant - tall, roly-poly, with a white beard, a warm voice and a hearty laugh - to be Santa Claus after school hours. To top it off, he loved children. His fame spread so rapidly that within a few days long lines had formed outside the store and more parents and children arrived by train as far away as Providence, Rhode Island. Before the turn of the century, department stores across America had added Santa Claus and even sat him on a throne. Children sat on his knee and whispered their deepest secrets into his ears.

Also in the latter part of the eighteen hundreds, children wrote letters to Santa Claus. By the 1890s post offices were overrun with letters for Santa each December. There was great diversity in the correct spelling o his and where he lived - South or North Pole - as well as what to do with the letters. Mail clerks gravely stamped them with a certification that the addressee could not be found and forwarded them to the dead letter office in Washington.

But children had faith in the Postal Service and knew Santa would get their letters. They came from children from all walks of life. One Christmas Eve, eight-year-old Edsel Ford, son of Henry and Clara Ford, and the future president of the Ford Motor Company, penned his letter in Detroit, Michigan:

Dear Santa Claus:

I Havent Had Any Christmas Tree in 4 Years And I Have Broken My Trimmings And I Want A Pair of Roller Skates And A Book, I Cant Think Of Any Thing More. I Want You To Think O Something More.

Good By.

Edsel Ford

On September 21, 1897, Francis P. Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter from an eight year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon who had written the paper asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. It has become known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter. 

Though no mention was made of her, Santa Claus' wife made her debut in 1899 in Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, one of a set of thirty-two books by Katharine Lee Bates, composer of "America the Beautiful".

In 1908, another story encouraged children to start leaving a little food for Santa Claus because he would be tired after his hard work. Carrots and other treats were later added for his reindeer. Of course, Santa always left a note thanking the children for their kindness. A 1910 advertisement for Ivory Soap showed a child sitting in front of the fireplace with a bowl of water, a towel and a bar of Ivory soap so that Santa could wash up after coming down the chimney. Following the ad to the letter, soiled wash clothes and dirty water was often found on Christmas morning.

The Sundblom Santa

Although some versions of the Santa Claus figure still had him attired in various colors of outfits past the beginning of the 20th century, the jolly, ruddy, sack-carrying Santa with a red suit with white trim and flowing white whiskers had become the standard image of Santa Claus by the 1920s.

As The New York Times reported on 27 November 1927:

"A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up."

Around 1931, the burgeoning Coca-Cola™ Company commissioned Haddon Hubbard "Sunny" Sundblom (June 22, 1899 – March 10, 1976), a Finnish-born American commercial illustrator, to create an image of Santa Claus in an effort to increase sales of their product during winter which was then a slow time of year for the soft drink market. Sundblom painted his first Santa Claus illustration for their Christmas advertising campaign. He claimed to have been partially inspired by the work of J.C. Leyendecker, a German-born American illustrator who the same year that Sundblom was born began his 44-year association with the most popular magazine in the country, the Saturday Evening Post, ultimately producing 322 covers for that magazine, introducing many iconic visual images and traditions including the New Year's Baby, the pudgy red-garbed rendition of Santa Claus, flowers for Mother's Day, and firecrackers on the 4th of July.

For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). 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.)  Thus, over the ensuing years, it was Sundblom's version that became imprinted in the minds of everyone as the quintessential version of Saint Nicholas.

From 1931 until 1964-5, Sundblom created at least one paining of Santa Claus every year for use in the company's advertisements in print media first and later on television throughout the world. Through his artistic talent, Santa would thereafter have human stature, making him more convincing and much more accessible - with a plump belly, a sympathetic face, a jovial air and a debonair bearing. The success of this advertising campaign helped fuel the legend that Coca-Cola actually invented the image of the modern Santa Claus, decking him out in a red-and-white suit to promote the company colors, or that, at the very least, Coca-Cola chose to promote the red-and-white version of Santa Claus over a variety of competing Santa figures in order to establish it as the accepted image of Santa Claus. 

The series of memorable drawings of Santa Claus by Sundblom associated Coca-Cola with the figure of a larger than life, red-and-white garbed Santa Claus: holding bottles of Coca-Cola, drinking Coca-Cola, receiving Coca-Cola as gifts, and especially enjoying Coca-Cola. These drawings became a perennial Christmas-time feature which helped spur Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter (and produced the bonus effect of appealing quite strongly to children, an important segment of the soft drink market). 

Christmas ads including Santa continue to the present day. While the Santa image may have been standardized before Coca-Cola adopted it for their advertisements, Coca-Cola had a great deal to do with establishing Santa Claus as a ubiquitous Christmas figure in America at a time when the holiday was still making the transition from a religious observance to a largely secular and highly commercial celebration. In an era before commercial television, color films, and the widespread use of color in newspapers, it was Coca-Cola's magazine advertisements, billboards, and point-of-sale store displays that exposed nearly everyone in America to the modern Santa Claus image. Although the Coca-Cola Company holds the trademark for the Coca-Cola Santa design which helped make Santa Claus one of the most popular men in America, they certainly did not invent him. 

Santa's 9th Reindeer

In 1939, copywriter Robert L. May of the Montgomery Ward Company created a poem about Rudolph, the ninth reindeer. May had been "often taunted as a child for being shy, small and slight." He created an ostracized reindeer with a shiny red nose who became a hero one foggy Christmas eve. Santa was partway through deliveries when the visibility started to degenerate. Santa added Rudolph to his team of reindeer to help illuminate the path. A copy of the poem was given free to Montgomery Ward customers.

It was 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Rudolph was relocated to the North Pole where he was initially rejected by the other reindeer who wouldn't let him play in their reindeer games because of his strange looking nose. The song was recorded by Gene Autry and became his all-time best seller. Next to "White Christmas" it is the most popular song of all time.

Playing: Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"


  • https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virginia_Santa_Claus.png#/media/File:Virginia_Santa_Claus.png
  • https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virginia_O%27Hanlon_(ca._1895).jpg#/media/File:Virginia_O%27Hanlon_(ca._1895).jpg
  • http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/design/articles/2011/december/22/everyday-icon-5-santa-claus/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haddon_Sundblom
  • http://www.coca-cola.co.uk/stories/history/advertising/coca-cola-and-father-christmas-the-sundblom-santa-story/
  • Christmas.com St. Nicholas - http://www.christmas.com/pe/1377; http://www.christmas.com/pe/1378; http://www.christmas.com/pe/1379
  • 1940 Poster - http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/noel/angl/pereno.htm
  • Bil's Christmas Library - Clement C. Moore - http://www.christmaslibrary.ca/moore.htm
  • Bil's Christmas Library - Thomas Nast - The Man Who Saw Santa - http://www.christmaslibrary.ca/nast.htm
  • The Claus that Refreshess - http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/santa.asp
  • Wikipedia, Washington Irving - http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Irving
  • About Washington Irving - http://www.hudsonvalley.org/education/Background/abt_irving/abt_irving.html
  • Washington Irving cartoon & book quote - http://www.lehigh.edu/~ejg1/irving/irvingintropg.htm
  • http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/treasures/american/irving.html
  • All about Santa Claus - http://www.religioustolerance.org/santa1.htm
  • Santa Clause Time-Line - http://www.time4me.com/card/legend/SantaClaus.html
  • Cokelore (The Clause that refreshes) - http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/santa.asp

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Created: Sunday, November 03, 2002; Last updated: Monday, February 15, 2016
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