Quick: describe Santa Claus. Get every detail. Red coat. Check. White trim. Check. Wide black belt. Check. Round belly. Check. Rosy cheeks. Check. White beard. Check. Black boots. Check. Now for the tricky part. How tall is he? If you said that Santa is an average-sized man, your mental image of him has probably been influenced by Coca-Cola advertising.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
Although St. Nicholas lived in the 3rd Century and Father Christmas first appeared in mid-17th Century England, the popular and familiar version of Santa Claus came about largely thanks to Clement Clarke Moore. In 1823 Moore published “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known by its opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas.” In this poem we see Santa beginning to become the Christmas Eve figure that we know and love. Moore describes St. Nick as wearing fur, but makes no mention of color. His “cheeks were like roses” and his beard “was as white as the snow.” He is “chubby and plump.” But if we pay attention to descriptions of size, we might be surprised.
How Big Is Santa Claus?
Moore first describes St. Nick as a “little old driver.” He drives, of course, “a miniature sleigh” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.” So Santa seems to be small, but maybe that’s just a trick of perspective. Two later lines, though, confirm Santa’s small stature. He has a “little round belly” and is a “right jolly old elf.” Clearly, the Santa that Moore has described is a good bit smaller than the average sized man that most of us picture. So why do we think of Santa as we do?
Haddon Sundblom’s Illustrations
Throughout the rest of the 19th Century, Moore’s St. Nick gradually took on characteristics of Father Christmas (typically portrayed wearing red and white robes) and the Dutch Sinterklaas (from whom we get the name Santa Claus). Still, though, visual representations varied pretty significantly. Santa was still often seen as the diminutive figure from Moore’s poem.
Coca-Cola had been using Santa in advertisements for several years before illustrator Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to produce a painting. In 1931, the first of many holiday advertisements featuring Sundblom’s Santa appeared. In these illustrations, which Sunblom produced until 1964, showed Santa in the size we recognize today. The advertisements ran in popular magazines and have been enormously popular since their introduction. Since that time, most depictions of Santa have been close to the version popularized by Coca-Cola.
Not the Sole Influencer
To say that Coca-Cola advertisements created the image of Santa Claus would be over-stating the case. But Sundblom’s images are certainly influential in solidifying that image. The result works out for everyone. Coca-Cola produces enduring and iconic advertising and everyone gets a jolly Santa at Christmas! So when you’re out and about in Rock Hill this Christmas, keep a sharp eye out for Coca-Cola and Santa Claus.