My family has a rule: Christmas cannot begin until after dessert on Thanksgiving day, at which point it can be considered in full swing. We finally begin decorating for, shopping for and thinking about Christmas.

For many Christmas-celebrating families, the most important image is, of course, that of Santa Claus. However, the beginnings of such a man were not as humble and jolly as they seem.

The image of Santa was a vague one before 1931; he often appeared as a spooky dark figure or a mischievous elf. His outfit originated from Thomas Nast, a Civil War artist, who developed St. Nick’s visual appearance from a Union supporter in 1862, to a Norse huntsman, and finally adding his big red coat, after 30 years of drawing him.

In the 1920s, Coca-Cola began using Santa’s image in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post in order to popularize their beverage. They began by using a gaunt and strict-looking Santa Claus, similar to that created by Nast. However, in 1931, they were advised to create a more lovable character to publicize the soda in its less popular winter months.

Working based on the description found in Clement Clark Moore’s poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” artist Haddon Sundblom created what we think of as Santa Claus today.

Sundblom’s Santa was an oil painting adapted to fit on billboards, in magazines and in posters, showing the man taking a break from delivering toys to read over his list and enjoy a Coke. He was the beginning of how Father Christmas is thought of and marketed today, with a bushy white beard, a big red suit and a smiling, rosy face.

Sundblom used his neighbor, a traveling salesman, as a live model for his original painting, and the public became so invested in the character that they would send letters to the company complaining about changes from the previous year’s advertisement. For instance, many letters were sent to Coca-Cola wondering what had happened to Mrs. Claus when Santa was accidentally depicted without his wedding ring.

In 1942, elf imagery was added to the ad campaign in the form of Sprite Boy. Sprite Boy was a small, wiry boy with spiky hair and a Coca-Cola cap affixed to his forehead. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the company gave him his own beverage called…Sprite.

Sundblom produced the advertisements for Coca-Cola until 1964, maintaining the themes and visual appearance of his first Santa Claus. The image of Santa is such a strong one today that it seems difficult to believe that it all began as a marketing ploy, but it did.

Next time you adorn your tree with an ornament representation of Santa Claus, remember to go out and get an ice-cold Coke to go with it.

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