The legendary Coca-Cola Santa turns 100 years old this year: here are 7 things you probably didn't know about him

Coca-Cola launched its first Christmas advertising campaign a hundred years ago, and since then, the figure of Santa and his illuminated truck have become iconic. But how did it all start? Did you know that Santa didn’t always have a red coat and wasn’t in such a great mood as he is in now? And what has George Lucas got to do with the Christmas Caravan? For the anniversary, we have gathered some interesting facts about Coca-Cola Santa that you’ve probably never heard before!

1. He wasn't always a chubby old man in a red outfit

Christmas commercials and movies from Anglo-Saxon countries depict Santa, who brings us gifts under the cover of the night, in the same way: a chubby, big-bearded, jolly, white-haired old man in a red coat and a hat. But he didn’t always look like this: before 1931, he appeared in all sorts of forms. Some drew him as a tall, skinny figure, others depicted him as a spooky-looking elf. At times he wore a bishop's attire, or even an outfit made of animal skin: he had a leather coat in the early depictions, which later became the iconic red coat we know today.

These pieces are now considered collector's relics. And the original oil paintings have been on display in exhibitions at famous museums such as the Louvre in Paris or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the World of Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, home to many art pieces.

2. Strict Santa

Coca-Cola's began featuring Santa in their commercials exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920. The first ads didn’t have any of the joyfulness of the figure we know today: he was strict-looking, in the vein of Thomas Nast, “the father of American caricature”. The highly popular Coca-Cola polar bears have made their first appearance in the company's advertisements around that time too: the first Coca-Cola ad featuring a polar bear was launched in France,1922. (However, people had to wait for the first TV commercial with polar bears until 1993.)

3. His coat isn’t red because of Coca-Cola, but without the beverage company, it might look different

Coca-Cola began placing ads in popular magazines in 1931. The advertising agency of the company wanted to use a novel-looking Santa figure in the Christmas campaign. After several attempts to find an illustrator who could capture the true essence of Santa, Michigan-born Haddon Sundblom was eventually selected for the task. Inspired by a poem from 1822, Sundblom drew the Coca-Cola Santa as a warm, friendly, and chubby man. It was a big change compared to previous commercials, as only people dressed as Santa were featured in the commercials before, not Santa himself. For example, a department store Santa was shown drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola in the sparkling drink’s advertisement in 1930. However, it is a misconception that Coca-Cola made his coat red: he was already depicted in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.

4. The original Coca-Cola Santa has a serious artistic value

The new Coca-Cola Santa debuted in 1931, and the commercials featured a lovely old man in a red outfit, greeting the children who stayed up for him on Christmas night and reading letters written for him, always refreshing himself with Coca-Cola at work (sometimes serving himself from the refrigerator of families receiving his gifts). Sundblom always made the original copy of the advertisements as oil paintings, then the pictures were reproduced on billboards, calendars, posters, and shop ads – there was a time when the characters from the pictures were also made into plush figures. These pieces are now considered collector's relics. And the original oil paintings have been on display in exhibitions at famous museums such as the Louvre in Paris or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the World of Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, home to many art pieces.

5. What happened to Santa's wife?

Sundblom has used several models for his Christmas pictures: the original model of Santa was his friend Lou Prentice, a retired salesman.  After Prentice had passed away, Sundblom painted Santa’s facial features as his own reflection. The children appearing in the commercials are the artist’s neighbours and the dog belongs to the florist who lived nearby. People loved the Christmas pictures, and if something changed about them compared to the previous year, they immediately wrote a letter to Coca-Cola. One year they drew the company's attention to the fact that Santa is wearing his belt backwards in the picture (it was probably made at a time when Sundblom was using himself as a model and was looking into a mirror). Another time Santa didn’t wear a wedding ring, so fans anxiously asked what happened to his wife.

6. Santa’s new friend

Santa got a sidekick called “Sprite Boy” in 1942. His character was invented by Sundblom and was named after his goblin-like appearance (sprite means goblin). Fun fact: the Sprite brand was only launched by the company in the 1960s, so the name appeared in Christmas advertising campaigns much earlier than the sparkling drink was named.

7. George Lucas and the Christmas Caravan

The illuminated Coca-Cola Christmas caravans were introduced for a new seasonal advertising campaign launched in 1995, called “Christmas Caravans”. The special effects were created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic studio. The trucks returned in several years, making it one of the company’s most successful Christmas campaigns. If you were a child in the nineties, the images of the fairy-tale caravan, the song “Santa Packs Are coming” and the sight of Santa sipping into a Coca-Cola on the back of the truck must have burned in your memory forever. (In the Hungarian version, the caravan can be seen next to the Fire Tower in Sopron, the Mosque in Pécs and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest.)

As Coca-Cola came up with its Christmas advertising 100 years ago, this year’s holiday plays an especially important part in the company’s life. That’s why the company has prepared multiple campaign elements to put everyone in a festive mood. These includes the moving short film directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi, the Hungarian commercial that draws attention to the importance of spending time with our loved ones, or the launch of the limited-edition Coca-Cola Zero Cinnamon.

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