In an earlier post, we talked about Santa being typically garbed in a white fur-trimmed red jacket and pants with matching hat, black boots and broad-buckled belt. We said that this prototype Santa suit, which became world famous through the Coke commercials featuring artist Haddon Sundblum’s lifelike paintings, was first originally seen in the drawings of editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast during the 1880s. We also said then that thanks to the effectiveness of Lundblums’s advertizing work for Coke during the 1930s along with the power of the mass media, we can now no longer imagine Santa dressed any other way. But in fact, did you know that Santa did got to dress in some other ways?
Nast himself also made drawings of Santa dressed in green much like his helper elves. And before that, Santa was sometimes depicted in tan or natural leather colored winter clothing which was commonly worn in those early days. In some European countries which were at that time predominantly Catholic like Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, Santa was still Saint Nicholas and as such was dressed in traditional bishop vestments, that is, he wore a chasuble which is a long red cape over a white linen alb or over a red stola, donned a red mitre which is a ceremonial headdress and held a golden crosier which is a ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a curl at the top. Saint Nicholas was after all a real life bishop who was renowned for his unconditional generosity especially to the children and the poor.
Aside from Saint Nicholas, there were other earlier personifications of the spirit of gift-giving which served as inspiration for our modern day Santa Claus. Each were depicted dressed in other ways. The Norse god Odin, blue-hooded and cloaked, whose day was also December 25, eventually became Father Christmas to the pre-Christianity Germanic peoples. In 16th century England however, Father Christmas was often described as a large bearded man in fur-lined green or scarlet robes. On the other hand, the Tomte or Nisse, a short bearded man in gray clothes and red hat according to Nordic folklore, was the Yuletide gift-giver in the Scandinavian countries.
Historically, White Rock Beverages predated Coca-Cola’s use of Santa Clause garbed in his now famous red and white suit in advertisements for soft drinks. In 1923, the company used Santa to advertise its ginger ale after first using him to sell mineral water in 1915. Coke, being a bigger multinational company, however deserves credit for popularizing the Santa according to Nast look before a wider, more diverse global audience.
In any event, if you come to a Christmas gathering dressed in the vestments of a bishop and say you are there to play Santa, do you think you’d be taken seriously? At least within this century, for better or for worse, the red and white Santa suit originated by Nast and made famous by Lundblum and Coke is here to stay. It has become part of our Christmas tradition. I myself would not have it any other way, would you?