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A Very Merry History of the Santa Suit

H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty

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It’s something of a habit among liberal Americans to talk about how excellent the Netherlands are. They have socialized healthcare, strict gun control laws, beautiful furniture, a ton of bicycles, and apparently… they also gave birth to Santa Claus.

Or, at least, the earliest version of Santa Claus as we know him today. He’s based on Saint Nicholas, a bishop who supposedly lived around the fourth century. Saint Nicholas was famous for leaving coins in poor children’s shoes or stockings, and, in one case, bestowing a dowry on three poor women from a Christian family so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes. The prostitution part of the story that doesn't make it into "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore but the stockings, at least, were remembered. St. Nicholas’s attire is also the reason Santa’s costume is red and white, because bishops traditionally wore red and white robes.

Image: Transcendental Graphics/Getty

To which I can reply: He does wear robes in the Netherlands. He’s also assisted by a helper who supposedly steals bad children called "Zwarte Piet." That roughly translates to "Black Pete." Participants in holiday festivals wear blackface to depict him.

So, like a lack of guns and socialized healthcare, those are two more things that never made it to the U.S.

The reason Black Pete never made the transition is pretty obvious. It’s because of absolutely everything that has ever happened, ever. The fact that Santa Claus’s outfit is more a furry red coat and less traditional robes, however, owes less to cultural differences and history. It owes more to a combination of Harper’s Weekly drawings, Norman Rockwell, and Coca-Cola.

19th century Dutch immigrants to brought tales of Sinterklass — or Santa Claus — with them to America. Santa was depicted in Harper’s Weekly by the illustrator Thomas Nast as early as 1862. Nast showed him as a figure aiding the Union Army. However, those depictions portray him more as a frankly vaguely sinister elf, and less as the cheerful red cheeked gentleman we’re familiar with today. (Sorry, Thomas Nast, he looks like a cross between Gandalf and Rasputin. Still cool of him to help the Union army, though!) He did, however, have the furry hat that we think of Santa wearing today. Nast’s drawing of Santa in 1881 comes a lot closer to our modern conception, perhaps because he seems to have gained some weight.

Image: Transcendental Graphics/Getty

The jolly image seemed to have stuck. In the early 1900s Santa was depicted on all manner of postcards, this time in boots and a white fur-trimmed suit. However, there did seem to be some debate over what color Santa’s suit should be — it’s shown in blue, red, and green on various postcards. The popular Puck magazine always opted for the red suit, though. They first featured Santa on the cover in 1901 carrying his sack to children who spurned his gifts in favor of copies of Tolstoy and Madame Bovary. In 1902 Santa was pictured being kissed by two beautiful Victorian ladies. In conclusion, Puck seems like a pretty fun magazine, and I like the cut of their jib.

By 1913 Norman Rockwell was illustrating Santa on the cover of magazines like Boy’s Life in a manner that’s virtually indistinguishable from the way he looks today. That is to say, the red, fur-trimmed coat and hat, the whiskers, and cheery cheeks. There were some variations. For instance, Rockwell would occasionally draw Santa at work — so he might be wearing an apron while crafting toys — but most publications stuck with the red suit. By 1927, The New York Times claimed that, "standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood, and the white whiskers."

That was certainly the look that the Coca-Cola company latched onto when they needed to boost their sales in the 1930’s. After Fred Mizen painted a Santa enjoying a Coca-Cola in 1930, the company enlisted the illustrator Haddon Sundblom to help craft wholesome images of Santa they could use to advertise their product. The fact that Santa’s coat matched their company colors was certainly not lost on them. In fact, due to Coca-Cola’s images many people believe that Santa wears a red suit because those are Coca-Cola’s colors. That’s not quite true, but, anything to get away from having to think about Black Pete, I guess.


Image: Pool BASSIGNAC/REGLAIN/Getty

Sundblom altered the image of Santa a little bit each year. For instance, the image of Santa from the third year of the advertising campaign is just Sundblom’s first painting with slight variations. However, there couldn’t be too many variations. The outfit certainly had to be the same, and so did the accessories. One year Sundblom forgot to paint on Santa’s wedding ring, and Coca-Cola received hundreds of letters asking if Santa had divorced Mrs. Claus. Coca-Cola reassured everyone he had not, which leads me to believe Santa was having an affair and just took his ring off sometimes. Everybody else overlooked that, though (Santa was probably not really having an affair, I guess Santa could also have been doing dishes). Sundblom continued painting Santa for Coca-Cola until 1964. His images since have become so culturally significant that they’ve been exhibited at the Louvre.

There are a few variations on Santa’s outfit going forward for special occasions like, say, World War One. During those years Santa was featured in a typical soldier’s outfit in posters made by the War Production Board. That was a rare departure though, certainly Coca-Cola never deviated from the standard Santa (this year’s advertisements suggest that you share a Coke with him). And if some people attribute Santa’s outfit to Coke? Well, maybe that’s just because as Americans we need stuff to be proud of, too.