Dale Bachman, chairman and CEO of Bachman’s, Inc., remembers only dimly a conversation we had on the second-to-last night of 1998, when I explained to him why Santa Claus is dressed in red. It’s just as well that his memory isn’t clearer, because my explanation was wrong.
Santa—he’s an old friend of mine, so I can refer to him by his first name—wears red, I told him, because the first color portraits of Santa were commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company, and red was already Coke’s trademark color. I thought Bachman would be interested—and he did seem to be—because in billboards, Bachman’s had portrayed Santa wearing purple, Bachman’s trademark color.
Now, I wasn’t making it up. I had read about Santa’s appearance in a pre-Christmas wire-service feature in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which had been unequivocal about Coca- Cola’s role in our image of Santa. But I have since conducted research of my own—serious, scholarly research using Google—and found that Santa wore red long before he was depicted drinking Coke.
He has been depicted in more ways, perhaps, than any other character in history. Although his gift-giving beneficence has remained constant, Santa has been drawn, sculpted, molded, painted, and projected through the centuries as everything from a tall, gaunt, ash-covered man to an enigmatic sad sack to a pipe-smoking elf. The elf image got a boost in 1823 with the publication of the poem now known as “The Night Before Christmas.” (“His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!”) It was not until the American Civil War and the publication of several black-and-white drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly that Santa’s image as a rotund, life-size, cheerful gift giver took hold.
Beginning in 1931, Haddon Sundblom, an artist commissioned by Coca-Cola, painted a series of holiday ads that showed Santa as friendly, pleasantly plump, and thirsty for a soft drink that had previously been regarded as a warm-weather beverage. Sundblom painted Santa for the next 33 years and, asserts Coca-Cola on its Web site, “actually helped shape the modern-day image of Santa.”
But not the color of his suit. At the turn of the 20th century and before, Santa had been shown wearing red in a variety of venues. An artist named Reginald Birch painted him in a red suit with white fur trim for the cover of a 1906 magazine called St. Nicholas For Young Folks. Norman Rockwell showed him—surrounded by helpful elves—in red in the Saturday Evening Post in 1922. N. C. Wyeth showed him in a red suit in a print called Old Kris in 1925. Even Cola-Cola concedes (again, on its Web site) that it is “a common misconception that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Cola-Cola.”
In recent years, figurines featured in holiday catalogs and department stores have presented Santa in costumes that Coca-Cola’s best illustrators could never have conceived. One mail-order retailer features a “French Chef Santa,” outfitted in a white toque and a yellow jersey with fleur-de-lis buttons; he carries cooking herbs in an apron pocket, a chicken under his arm, and a basket filled with lavender and baguettes. Also available: a “German Santa” who carries a cuckoo clock mounted on a walking stick and a “Safari Santa” adorned in a leopard-print robe and wooden amulets who carries a scepter topped with three animal heads.
Santa has been robed in green velvet, gold brocade, and gray mink. There are “Irish Santas” bedecked with embroidered shamrocks and “Scottish Santas” in tartan kilts. Santa dolls can be purchased in faux bearskin, imitation ermine, and real rabbit fur—and in Hawaiian shirts, Western hats and vests, and a rainbow of stripes, plaids, and checks. Santa can also be found in the uniforms of professional football and baseball teams. (Imagine Santa at bat for the New York Yankees; more Halloween than Christmas.) A “Patriotic Santa” has been decked in red, white, and blue.
The most-popular image of Santa remains that of an avuncular gentleman—ample, jolly, rosy-cheeked, and with a flowing white beard—dressed in a red suit with white trim and a black belt and boots. That image will persist, in part, because that is what Santa looks like when you see him live. It is what modeling agencies and shopping-mall managers expect him to look like, and what trainers in the art of portraying Santa teach that he should look like. For more on that subject, see this month’s cover story.