How Santa brought Coca-Cola in from the cold

By Tory Altman
Illustration of Santa Claus wearing a fur coat and hat, inspecting stocking hung on a string in front of a fireplace

For me, it's almost hard to imagine a holiday season without Coca-Cola. The adorable polar bear commercials, the penguins romantically sharing a bottle atop a snowy Antarctic drift... New wintry soda advertisements have grown into their own kind of holiday tradition, something Americans watch out for and talk about. But it turns out that Coca-Cola's influence on the Christmas holiday season, and winter's influence on the soda brand, runs much deeper than you might first expect.

Illustration of Santa Claus wearing a fur coat and hat, inspecting stocking hung on a string in front of a fireplace
In this advertisement from 1885, an earlier version of Santa Claus delivers Ivory Soap for Christmas. Ivory Soap Advertising Collection 1883-1998, Proctor & Gamble Company, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Visitors to our new American Enterprise exhibition, opening July 1, 2015, will come face-to-face with an image they're more than likely already familiar with. A Coca-Cola advertisement depicting Santa Claus, decked out in his holiday finest and sharing a refreshing bottle of Coke with his elves, will help our curators frame a discussion about how the advertising industry and commercial companies have influenced the way Americans think and consume. This ad in particular also helps explain why Coca-Cola turned to a wintry holiday figure to help sell their products. During the chilly winter months, the company faced a major problem: how do you convince customers that soda is not just a summer beverage, but should be enjoyed year-round? As early as the 1910s, they turned to Santa Claus for the answer, hoping the popular figure would help connect Coca-Cola to the holiday season.


Coca Cola ad shows a smiling Santa Claus seated in a chair as small elves remove his boots.
This advertisement from Coca-Cola will appear in our upcoming exhibition "American Enterprise." The slogan "The Pause That Refreshes" first appeared in Coca-Cola ads in 1929.

Santa Claus in the 1910s and 1920s had largely come into focus as the jolly, bearded, happy soul we would recognize today, but artists still occasionally tweaked the color of Santa's robes or the amount of girth they added around the middle. At the time, Coca-Cola relied on the images of Santa that had prevailed for a century. In 1822, American poet Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his daughters about "A Visit from St. Nicholas," describing the holiday gift-giver as a "little old driver, so lively and quick" who was small enough to fit down chimneys. By the 1860s, famous cartoonist Thomas Nast had turned Santa Claus into a fully human-sized character and given him a home at the North Pole.

Coke advertisement featuring Santa reading a note from Jimmy that says "pause here"
Haddon Sundblom's Santa Claus was originally based on Sundblom's friend, Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. His first redrawing of Santa appeared in 1931.

In the early 1930s, Coca-Cola turned to Haddon H. Sundblom, an advertising artist with the D'Arcy Agency, to design a new Santa. Sundblom redrew Santa Claus as a plump, cheerful man with snow-white hair and dressed him in red and white—colors that had already become associated with Santa, but which happily matched Coca-Cola's signature colors. Sundblom even provided a Mrs. Claus, based on his own wife. Today, it is Sundblom's Santa who decorates everything from Coca-Cola cans to Christmas sweaters, from greeting cards to home décor, all because Coca-Cola wanted to increase its winter sales.

Coca Cola advertisement with smiling Santa holding a Coca Cola and the text, "Give and take, Say I"
Remember when a Coke cost five cents?

When doing research for this post, I came across another bit of surprising history that ties Coca-Cola ever closer to the holiday season. In 1965 Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, and his friend Lee Mendelson pitched a story about Charlie Brown, the world's worst baseball player, to network television. No one took the bait. But that summer, Coca-Cola reached out to Mendelson, asking if he and Schulz could turn out a Charlie Brown Christmas special in the six months remaining before December 25, 1965. Schulz and Mendelson jumped at the chance, but Schulz insisted both that the special include a full minute of Linus reading the Nativity chapter from the Gospel of Luke and that all of the characters be voiced by real children, not actors. Coca-Cola agreed to the terms and in about three months A Charlie Brown Christmas was born. The show aired on CBS for the first time on December 9, 1965, and almost half of America's television audience tuned in for it. Another Coca-Cola-sponsored Christmas tradition was born.

Charlie Brown themes lunch box with small images from the comic strip and a large image of Charlie Brown on the mound, preparing to pitch a ball
Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson first developed a script for a TV special on Charlie Brown, the world’s worst baseball player. (2004.3009.02.01)

A few more objects from Coca-Cola will be appearing in the American Enterprise exhibition, including some Spanish-language commercials and the recent "Coke Hands" ad. Santa Claus and his role in advertising history also appears in our OurStory activity set Money Makers, based on the children's book Lemonade in Winter.

Tory Altman is an education specialist. She has also blogged about What it Means to Be American.