The real Santa Claus, St Nicholas, was born around the year 280 in what is now Turkey. The Greek bishop probably had a badly broken nose, possibly suffered during the persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian. St Nicholas had a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the “Great Persecution”, when priests were made to renounce Christianity or face execution.
1200 to 1500
For years, St Nicholas was celebrated as the bringer of gifts around the day of his death, Dec 6. He became known as a patron of children because of a tale in which three girls were saved from a life of prostitution. He secretly delivered bags of gold to their debt-ridden father. After the Protestant Reformation, saints like him fell out of favour across northern Europe.
St Nicholas made inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. A New York newspaper reported that Dutch families honoured the anniversary of his death. “Santa Claus” had evolved from his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).
American Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore created a defining image of Santa Claus with his poem, A Visit From St Nicholas, (commonly called ’Twas the Night Before Christmas).
“...He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…”
Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Mr Moore’s poem to depict Santa as a round, bearded man, holding a sack full of toys for children. The American gave Santa his red suit with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and Mrs Claus.
From the 1920s
Santa has been featured in Coke ads since the 1920s. The Coca-Cola Company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa. For inspiration, he also turned to the Moore poem and, in 1931, his warm and friendly Santa made his first jolly appearance.