There are only eight more days until the most wonderful time of the year is officially over, and the decorations pour back into their boxes, the stockings are folded, and Christmas is forgotten about. For many kids, what they love most about the season is Father Christmas: an icon with his white beard, shiny black boots, red floppy hat, and big red belted coat with a fluffy white trim. But how did Santa come to steal the Christmas limelight?
Everyone is well acquainted with the story of St. Nicholas. The kind hearted, 4th century bishop from Turkey who gave to the poor by dropping money down their chimneys. Looking at St Nick’s long red bishop’s robes, it is easy to assume this is where Santa’s penchant for red comes from. But in fact, St Nicholas himself is only one inspiration for Santa, who is actually an amalgamation of many merry men from over the centuries: a pagan man in green representing the coming of spring, Father Time, King Frost, Old Father Christmas, and many more eventually came together as the Santa Claus we know and love today. So how did this one unified image come about?
If we look back at old pictures of Santa, he used to dabble in a variety of styles: an eclectic, fashionable old man. He can be seen wearing anything from pale blue to purple to green, with different colour fur trims, or sometimes – cheeky santa – in a snug, fur jumpsuit. Clement Moore’s classic Twas’ the Night Before Christmas poem testifies to that; ‘He was dressed in all fur from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.’ This all-fur outfit was probably the most common Santa depiction of the 19th century, but the styles themselves varied wildly: from a long cloak with smart shoes to his current big black boots. And Santa didn’t stop the experimentation when it came to accessories. He might wear a nightcap, a top hat, or crown himself with holly. Some images even depict a drunkard Santa with a crown made of wine glasses and bottles! It is only with old age that Santa has become stuck in the fashion rut.
Any child might tell you, Santa is from the North Pole. In fact, the Santa we know is well and truly American: born in the wake of the roaring 20s, a product of the birth of advertising and acceleration of consumerism. Fast-forward to 1931, and Coca Cola needed a new icon for their winter advertising campaign, something to cheer the masses during the depression whilst being easily identifiable with the iconic red label and white script of a bottle of Coke. Enter Haddon Sundblom, an American artist, hired to redesign Father Christmas in colours synonymous with the brand. With that, ‘Santa’ was born. As the debauchery of the 20s, with its speakeasies and flappers, departed with the new decade, the old drunkard Father Christmas with his wine crown and pipe was sanitised into a child-friendly, jolly old man with a bottle of coke… just occasionally reminded of his roots by children leaving a glass of sherry by the fire.