Why Is Santa Claus Red?

Why Is Santa Claus Red?

Santa Claus isn’t the man you think he is – and we can thank a soft drinks company for that.

We’ve come to recognise Santa for his hallmark red, rather like the Euroffice bunch of cherries (we like to think), but this jolly character has evolved over time and is also known in the mists of time to have been partial to green.

Santa Claus is a descendant, namewise, of St. Nicholas. He was bishop of a town in 4th-century Greece called Myra (now Demre, in Turkey).  St. Nicholas sounded like a forthright character.  An early story recounts that he gave Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, a dressing-down over something, threatening to “stir up an uncontrollable revolt against you, and hand over your carcass and entrails to the wild beasts for food!”.

(Does that mean Turkey’s turkeys would be eating someone else’s leftovers for Christmas?)

Legend has it Nicholas had a reputation for giving gifts to the poor.  Perhaps the most famous story is that he secretly paid the dowry of three girls from an impoverished family, so they could be married and avoid being sold into a brothel.

St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Greece, sailors and children (amongst other things).  I’ve read that he remained popular in the middle ages, but his transformation to Santa Claus happened in 16th century Holland where he became known as Sinterklaas; a figure who’d leave treats and presents for children, such as slipping coins into their shoes, in December.  He was portrayed as wearing a long robe and rode a white horse in the sky (an idea perhaps inspired by Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir).

Along the way St Nicholas also got stirred in with our own Father Christmas.  Here in the UK, Father Christmas is possibly a combination of characters and myth that pre-date Christianity.  Instead of a red jacket and trousers, he has a long cloak and wore bunches of holly, ivy or mistletoe.  People say he could have something in common with the Green Man. (That’s a nature and fertility spirit, not a pub.)

So how on earth did this Father Christmas figure, part ancient Greek, part ancient spirit, dressed in flowing robes (and looking like he’s stumbled through a rosebush) end up as the red-cheeked and red-suited figure we know today?

Coca-Cola.  Sort of.

I’ve read that as the Dutch started to settle in America in the early 19th century, they brought along their own traditions and myths, including Sinterklaas.  As time went on his story altered and his clothes changed: the cloak became the two-piece suit in red. Yet it wasn’t until the 1930s that this figure became a fixture.

That’s where Coca-Cola comes in. In the 1930s the company started placing ads in magazines, which featured ‘a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic’ (a catchy description that came from an advertising agency).

That jolly character was the brainchild of Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator and commercial artist. (Sundblom was actually of Swedish and Finnish parentage, so perhaps he’d heard stories of people dressing up in coats and furs against the Scandinavian cold.  )

He painted Santas for Coca-Cola advertising for more than 30 years.  And, thanks to the company’s marketing budget and global reach, Sundblom’s jocular red-and-white portrayal has become, perhaps, the defining image of the character.

However all relationships come to an end.  Eventually Coca-Cola parted ways with Sundblom, though the artist did still managed to get one Santa-themed painting done: it was the cover of for the Christmas 1972 edition of Playboy.  That Santa was a lot younger and thinner, and had turned into a woman (who didn’t have a beard).

But however Santa came to be, one thing remains certain: the power of red. It’s the colour of joy and celebration in so many cultures around the world. Just like the Euroffice bunch of cherries, red heralds good things.  (But I still wished we called him Father Christmas, here in the UK.)

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