SAINT NICHOLAS, PERE NOEL, SANTA CLAUS. WHATEVER YOU’D RATHER CALL THE FATHER, WE IMMEDIATELY RECOGNISE THE ICONIC CHARACTER WITH HIS RED AND WHITE SUIT, BLACK BOOTS AND BUCKLED BELT BULGING AT THE WAIST. THE QUESTION IS, WHO WAS ACTUALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR FABRICATING THE FIGURE?
Most presume that the jolly chap we all know has been, and has always been the be all and end all to Santa. When actually this wasn’t the case. Civil war cartoonist Thomas Nast came along in 1862 and created a much brighter version, which resembles the one we know today. For over 30 years, Nast published his drawings in Harper’s Weekly. From a tan-coloured cloak, the colours changed to red and green (shame it wasn’t green, it would’ve done wonders with the ‘eat your greens kids’). At this time he was depicted in drawings as a tall, slim bloke to a gaunt elf – he looked slightly creepy actually. There’s no definite proof that any artist or company can claim responsibly for the creation. Nevertheless, Nast’s illustrations have provided some evidence that the vision was changing.
Nast also sported the idea of Santa climbing down chimneys (much to my brother’s despair, he used to think Santa was a burglar), portraying the figure with his notorious sack. Despite the character taking on a bolder look, Nast and other illustrators still hadn’t set a design in concrete – drawings ranged from some mythical midgets to willowy wizards. Today they’d look like they’d wandered of the set of Lord of the Rings, not exactly the beaming face of kindness we’d recognise. Infact, Nast was influenced by a creature he remembered from the Alps where he was from, a small gnome who carried a rod to ware off children. Slightly alarming.
You may have noticed that the colours conveniently match to those of Coca-cola, and it is, just a coincidence. The commercial brand, however was heavily involved with making Santa friendly. With slow sales in the winter, soft drinks’ revenue really struggle. Coca-cola reached out and commissioned Haddon Sundblom, a Swedish artist, in 1930 to create a wholesome, neighbourly character. The idea behind this was to cheer up the nation in its post-war depression by having an advertisement that would remind the citizens of Christmas, yet tempting with the product. Clever. Using Nast’s colour palette, Sundblom fattened the character up, and gave him the characteristics of today. So from the early 1940s, and the character was cemented as a red round man.
In the UK and US, we have fashioned him to be part of Coca-cola’s vision. In Europe however, the idea of Saint Nicholas in a Bishop’s attire is very apparent. Disputed by historians, the colours have thought to have derived from the mitre, which was what Saint Nick the Bishop wore in the 4th century. What was remembered was his kindness to children.
So there you have it. They’ve all played a part: personality stemming from Saint Nicholas, colours from Thomas Nast and the portly figure from Coca-cola. Thanks to these, we know the hero to be an actual human, rather than a gnome (a gnome delivering a sack of presents would’ve really tipped my brother over the edge).