If you were to pause for a moment, close your eyes, and then conjure up the vision of Santa Claus in your mind — what would he look like?
Chances are he would be rather large, plump and portly in shape, dressed in a red outfit with white fur trim and a wide black belt, wearing boots, have a long white beard and of jolly disposition. Am I close?
If so, thank the artist and illustrator Haddon Sundblom (‘Sund-bloom’). Haddon Sundblom is regarded as the Father of Modern Christmas by many, and was instrumental in defining the mental image of Santa Claus for my generation and for generations to come.
Haddon “Sunny” Sundblom (1899 – 1976) was a Michigan-born American illustrator and artist of Finnish and Swedish descent, best known for the images of Santa Claus which he created for The Coca-Cola Company. Previously, Santa Claus had been portrayed in sundry ways, from a spooky-looking little elf to a tall thin man, and wearing anything from Bishop’s robes to animal skins. Coca-Cola sought a more realistic and symbolic image for Santa Claus.
Beginning to place advertisements in popular magazines, in 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.
For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, or as more commonly known — “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Moore’s descriptions led Sundblom to create an image of a more warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa Claus, using neighbor friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman, as his model. Children in the paintings were two little girls who were neighbors as well, although he decided to paint one as a boy to appeal to both girls and boys.
The first Coca-Cola advertisement with the new Sundblom Santa appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1931, along with “Ladies Home Journal”, “The New Yorker”, “National Geographic”, and others.
From 1931 to 1964, Sundblom’s creations for Coca-Cola had Santa Claus pictured as doing everything from delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read letters, visiting with children who had waited up to meet him on Christmas Eve, raiding the refrigerators of several homes, warming his feet by the fire, and other activities — always with a bottle of Coke in hand or nearby. The Sundblom Santa became so popular that the images spread from print ads on to billboards, posters, calendars, plush dolls and more.
Haddon Sundblom created his final Santa image for Coca-Cola in 1964, incorporating the neighborhood florist’s grey poodle, painted black to stand out more in the image. The company continued to use the popular Santa image for several more decades. Various items bearing the Sundblom Santa image are popular collectibles to this day.
In 2001, Haddon Sundblom’s Santa Claus was creatively brought to life in a Coca-Cola ad video tribute, animated by the Academy Award-winning animator Alexandre Petrov.
So the next time you envision Santa Claus and maybe even have a simultaneous unexplained craving for a Coca-Cola, please give a wink and nod to the artist Haddon Sundblom. He was instrumental in defining the image of Santa Claus for us all.
Wishing the very best of the holiday season to everyone. Merry Christmas!