Coca-Cola, the American multinational corporation best known for producing beverage concentrates, syrups, and alcoholic beverages, has launched its 2023 Christmas ad, which focuses on “kindness” rather than being product-centric. Coca-Cola’s Christmas 2023 tagline, ‘The World Needs More Santas,’ hinges on the idea that through acts of kindness, anyone can embrace their inner Santa.
However, it’s interesting to note the historical origins of Santa Claus. While Christians claim that Santa Claus is none other than the historical Christian Saint named Saint Nicholas, the reality is that neither Saint Nicholas nor Santa Claus had anything to do with Christmas originally. Santa was artificially inserted into Christmas in the 19th century, and today, he is omnipresent, appearing on stickers, cakes, and various merchandise, depicted as a warm, happy character who brings gifts to children. This modern representation stands in stark contrast to the historical Santa, who was depicted in early paintings as a hot-tempered, abusive, threatening, and intolerant zealot.
One of the earliest references to the “Real Santa Claus” comes from an almost contemporary account named Stratelatis, written around AD 400. This account has been corroborated by the high praise of Saint Proclus in his Encomium on Saint Nicholas (440 CE). In these early accounts, Santa Claus comes to the defense of prisoners, issuing threats to Emperor Constantine and a local governor named Ablabius. This image of Santa Claus issuing death threats is hardly compatible with his modern image.
According to Christian sources, Santa Claus was an attendee of the Council of Nicaea convened by Emperor Constantine. In this council, he famously slapped a fellow Christian pastor named Arius, who opposed Trinitarian doctrine. For this physical assault, he was briefly imprisoned. These deeds have been alluded to by his early Hagiographers like Andrew of Crete (8th century) and Michael the Archimandrite (9th century). In all available records, he condemned unbelievers and non-Christians to “eternal hell.”
The real Santa Claus belonged to Myra (today’s Turkey), a place that housed a great temple to the Goddess Artemis. Santa Claus saw every non-Christian god as a demon and waged a crusade against temples. At the time, Constantine became the first-ever Christian emperor in history, and Santa Claus took full advantage of the opportunity, breaking the temple of Artemis with his own hands. According to Christian sources, hundreds of non-Christian temples were broken down by Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus, with Andrew of Crete (8th century) praising him as an architect “for breaking down idols and building Churches in their place.”
This forcible destruction of temples, often forming the basis of nations and people, was essentially a religious war in which many people were killed.
At this point, one must pause to ask: Where is the Santa Claus of children? Where is the gift-giver of children? Where is Christmas? Where is the snow? Where are the sleigh and reindeer? Where is the Santa cap? Where are the elves? His current image is a modern recreation! It must be remembered that Santa Claus had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.
Until the 19th century, Santa Claus had his own festival, St. Nicholas Day on December 6. It was believed that Santa Claus would come down on December 6, and some European countries still celebrate it.
In 19th-century America, the coming of Santa Claus was artificially moved from December 6 to December 25, from Saint Nicholas Eve to Christmas Eve. Two 19th-century poems, “The Night Before Christmas” and “Children’s Friend,” are credited with this transformation. Until the 19th century, Santa Claus had nothing to do with Christmas; he came down on Saint Nicholas’s Eve (December 6). He was not depicted with reindeer, wore a bishop’s robe, and was not the cute, jolly, and lovable Santa we know today; he came down to punish unbelievers.
Who reshaped the image of Santa?
Coca-Cola’s Christmas ad highlights the positive transformation and overlooks Santa’s historical role as a temple destructor. Although many attempts were made in the 19th century, this advertisement played a significant role.
Coca-Cola did play a role in popularising the modern image of Santa Claus. In the 1930s, the company commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to create a series of festive illustrations featuring Santa Claus enjoying Coca-Cola. These images, used in Coca-Cola’s holiday advertising campaigns, helped solidify the modern image of Santa as a warm and friendly figure.
Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign cemented the image of Santa Claus as a friendly, grandfatherly figure that endures to this day. The red and white colour scheme of Santa’s attire also aligned seamlessly with Coca-Cola’s branding, creating a lasting association between the beverage and the holiday season.
Coca-Cola’s 2023 Christmas ad promotes kindness with the tagline ‘The World Needs More Santas,’ but it omits Santa’s historical role as a temple destructor. The image of Santa Claus began to be reimagined in the 19th century, even before the Coca-Cola advertisement. In the age of reform (c. 1850), Santa began taking his modern form.
While depictions of Santa Claus in red/orange robes existed before the Coca-Cola ad, they were rare. He was frequently shown in a white costume, appropriate for a bishop like him. The popularisation of his red costume is owed to the colour of Coca-Cola.
Coke knows that Santa sells
The Coca‑Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s in an effort to increase sales during the slower winter months. Several different images of Santa were used, but none proved to be popular with consumers until 1931. That year, Archie Lee, an advertising executive for Coca‑Cola, commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint a Santa that was both wholesome and realistic. Sundblom looked to the Clement Moore poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and his own Scandinavian heritage to create the big, red, jolly vision of Santa that the Company used for more than 30 years.
Coca-Cola’s “Holidays are Coming” ad campaign is one of the company’s most recognisable and longest-running seasonal promotions. This classic commercial debuted in 1995 and features the arrival of the Coca-Cola Christmas trucks decked out in holiday lights and decorations. The ad captures the spirit of the holiday with its upbeat tune and images of happy families spending time together. Across the globe, people wait with bated breath for the first glimpse of the brightly lit trucks making their way across the snowy landscapes, which has come to symbolise the approach of Christmas. By associating Coca-Cola with the holiday spirit and cheer, this ad has succeeded in creating a sense of wonder and expectation, outlining the real image of Santa.
According to reports, Coca-Cola earned a profit of $12,758,276 in 1929. After introducing Santa as its face, the company experienced significant growth, nearly 2.5 times its earnings a decade earlier, achieving a net profit of $29,030,375 in 1939. As of the latest available data, Coca-Cola has continued its upward trajectory, recording a revenue of USD 17,354 million. This represents almost a doubling of its revenue in just two decades, reaching USD 33,014 million in 2020.
In summary, the modern portrayal of Santa Claus as a benevolent figure associated with Christmas is a 19th-century transformation. The historical Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a zealous figure involved in temple destruction and religious conflicts. The festive, gift-giving character we know today emerged later, detached from his original intimidating persona.