Sunday, December 23, 2012

Coca Cola and Santa Claus

Legends of Saint Nicholas's penchant for giving gifts to children date back to the medieval period. St. Nicholas was a Bishop in the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. His feast day is December 6. In Scandinavian folklore, the elderly gift-giver was a tall, thin man who looks more like the wizard Gandalf from Lord of the Rings than the Hobbit-like rotund figure popular today. What is interesting about the Scandinavian version of the gift-giver is that it predates a Christian influence in that region.

In Italy, the traditional gift-giver is La Befana, an elderly woman, sometimes referred to as a witch. A newer figure, Babbo Natale, is replacing La Befana in popular culture. Babbo Natale is modeled largely after the American Santa Claus although he is thinner and more patrician-looking.

The traditional gift-giver in France varies by region. In northern France the tradition is similar to that of Germany and Belgium. Pere Noel is also popular, a figure called Father Christmas in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In Southern France, children expect gifts from the baby Jesus, not an old man.

In Iberian countries, gifts come from the magi, who brought gifts to Jesus. They are generally depicted as older men, but there are three of them and they are not heavy-set.

In western Europe, Father Christmas was the spirit of good cheer. He was well-fed, but not fat. He wore a fur-lined robe, but it was green, not red. All that changed in 1823 when the New York Sentinel published "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" by Clement Clark Moore. Moore's St. Nick was chubby and rode in a sleigh full of toys pulled by flying reindeer with Dutch names. Moore's St. Nick was also describes as an elf, a small man.

In 1863, American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, depicted St. Nick as man-sized and wearing a cold-weather outfit decorated with Union stars and stripes.

Other bits of the image and story of Santa Claus were added over the years including his living in the North Pole, being married, and coming down chimneys. But it wasn't until Thomas Nast's revised Santa appeared in a Coca Cola ad designed by Frank Mizen in 1930, that the modern version of Santa Claus was created.

Mizen's Santa dressed in Coca Cola colors - white, red, and black. He drank Coca Cola (not milk kids) while delivering toys. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom took Mizen's idea and turned it into a full-blown marketing campaign for Coca Cola from 1931-1964. Sundblom's Santa was playful, mischievous, and hungry (he was often depicted eating or looking for food in people's refrigerators).
The Santa Americans (and increasingly Europeans and others around the world who celebrate Christmas) know and love today is a creation of the Coca Cola Company. Coca Cola proudly owns this history as a testament to how the company and their products have shaped American folklore over the last century. You can read more about Coca Cola's history of the Modern Day Santa Clause here.

What is fascinating to me is how most Americans have no idea that the Santa they celebrate today is not only a modern invention, he is the invention of a marketing department. Santa is much like the 'tradition' of giving a diamond engagement ring, which was never a tradition before the DeBeers cartel made it one in a marketing campaign. How many American traditions are born of marketing? Does this make the traditions all the more American because they are contrived by corporations or does this somehow take away from their magic? What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. My sister gave me this link to a article that tries to disprove the Coca Cola genesis of Santa Claus. What do you think?