Sunday, December 23, 2012
Coca Cola and Santa Claus
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 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.
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).
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?