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In contrast with the "saintly" Claus portrayed by Rockwell, the beginning of the "definitive" American Santa Claus was in the 1920’s, when Coca Cola® began their major promotion using Santa to promote their drink. Success was minimal until 1931 when artist, Haddon Sundblom (seen right) created his Santa.
His first model was his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. After Prentiss’ death in the late 1940s, Sundblom used himself as a model.
His annual painting from 1931 through 1964 created the Santa that many now think of as the "traditional" Santa. He completed the transformation from Moore's friendly old elf to a full-sized human, complete with plump belly, sympathetic face, jovial air, and debonair bearing. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toyshop workers are elves, not the "big guy" himself.
As noticed previously, Sundblom wasn't the first artist to give Santa a face. Thomas Nast did so beginning in the mid 1800s, but without a standardization of his features -- or even his size; Coca-Cola's® first Santa's, from the 1920s, were in the same vein as the Nast Santas of the 1800s, according to Coke's web site on Santa.
When Louis Prang created a Santa Claus Christmas card in 1885, he was wearing a red suit. So were both of Prang's 1886 Santa cards. Likewise, Norman Rockwell painted his saintly Santas before 1931 -- but only sporadically and without the annual "consistency" of Sundblom. So, Sundblom didn't create the red-coated Santa, but he did give us a consistent "look" of Santa every year for over 30 years.
Finally, there is a popular fiction that needs to be refuted. Santa doesn't wear red and white because these colors match those of Coca Cola®. Bearing in mind that Santa Claus is descended from Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (and Bari), and taking note that a bishop's robes are red — and we have the answer. It is the red color of a bishop's robes, together with the white Ermine trim, that gave Santa Claus his familiar colors. For Coca Cola®, it was just a happy coincidence. These two postcards — from 1906 and 1909, respectively — confirm that Santa was clad in red well before Sundblom's Santas became popular beginning in 1931.
(I purchased these cards at an antique show in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday, October 26, 2003. The dates are from the postmarks on the opposite sides.)
Indeed, an English Father Christmas is first recorded in his traditional red and white outfit in a woodcut of 1653. And Barbara Charles and J. R. Taylor quoted The New York Times of November 27, 1927:
This was a full four years before Sundblom drew his first Santa for Coke®. For more information, see Barbara Charles and J. R. Taylor, Dream of Santa: Haddon Sundblom’s Advertising Paintings for Christmas, 1931-1964 (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992; reissued in 1994 as Dream of Santa: Haddon Sundblom's Vision).
By the way, we shouldn’t be too shocked at this "commercialization" of Santa Claus. If anything, the Coca-Cola® company was way behind the power curve.
Stores in the United States began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly popular Santa Claus.
As early as 1841, Santa had been used as an advertising tool when stores proclaimed themselves as "Santa's Headquarters." On Christmas Eve, 1841, J. W. Parkinson of Philadelphia had a real "Criscringle" descending a chimney above the door of his shop to the amazement of all that passed by, especially the children. In 1846, Mr. Parkinson was advertising his store as "Kriss Kringle's Headquarters.
In 1867, Macy’s in New York stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve – presumably to accommodate those "last minute" shoppers.
By the 1870's, Santa Claus was putting in regular appearances in department stores in the United States and Canada. In 1874, Macy’s created its first window display with a Christmas theme. And in 1875 Louis Prang of Boston published the first American Christmas Card. His 1885 and 1886 images showed Santa Claus – and the now-traditional red suit – much in the same tradition as the earlier American images, but with a softer, gentler look, more the saintly old gent than the jolly old elf.
By the 1880s, the Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, hired Edgar, a Scottish immigrant, who was tall, roly-poly, with a white beard, a warm voice and a hearty laugh, to be Santa Claus. To top it off, he loved children. In 1890 he donned a Santa Claus to wear during after school hours. But his fame spread so rapidly that within a few days long lines had formed outside the store and more parents and children arrived by train as far away as Providence, Rhode Island. Before the turn of the century, department stores across America had added Santa Claus and even sat him on a throne. Children sat on his knee and whispered their deepest secrets into his ears. Finally, during the 1890s, Father Christmas began to appear in English stores.
In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in red Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.