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The History of the Santa Suit

History of the Santa Suit

- By Jenna Maxwell

  • In the 1890s, the Salvation Army enlisted unemployed men to don Santa suits and solicit donations for their New York location.
  • Harper's Weekly ran an illustration drawn by Thomas Nast in 1862, showing the first image of Santa Claus that would become the precursor for the modern image.
  • Fred Mizen created a painted illustration of Santa Claus wearing a red costume, and drinking Coca Cola in 1930.
  • Haddon Sundblom created a colorful image of Santa's suit for Coca Cola between the years of 1931 and 1964. He used Nast's 1862 drawings as inspiration.
  • Santa Claus' red costume is derived from 18th century European versions of Saint Nicholas.

The Santa suit may be a familiar aspect of the American holiday season, but do you know how the costume came to be? While Santa has been an integral part of Christmas for centuries, the modern version of Santa came to prominence in the 19th century. Santa Claus' predecessors include the pagan god Odin, the Catholic Saint Nicholas of Myra, the European version of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, the Dutch figure Kris Kringle, and the English character, Father Christmas. Many of these characters traditionally wore a red coat or costume, which would later become the inspiration for the first widely-viewed image of Santa Claus. However, earlier versions of Santa Claus differ greatly in appearance from today's description of the jolly old elf.

In 1822, author Clement Clark Moore published the poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The poem depicted a different looking Santa Claus than what was previously known, as some earlier versions show Santa Claus as a skinny elf with long beard. Other pre-Victorian depictions show Santa Claus figures dressed in robes of various colors or in different colored suits. Artist Thomas Nast illustrated Moore's book, and created the images of Santa Claus that would lay the foundation for his red costume. He also illustrated the book Santa Claus and His Works.

Santa's Beard and Glasses

Nast went on to draw Christmas Scenes for the publication Harper's Weekly. He continued to draw images of Santa from 1862 until 1866. These images are the first illustrations of Santa Claus that resemble our modern conception, as they include much of the background and scenery associated with Christmas. Nast's illustrations often featured reindeer, the North Pole, Santa Claus' workshop, and toys for children who had been good throughout the year. Harper's Weekly published Nast's illustration A Christmas Furlough that depicted Santa Claus speaking to a crowd of people. While the image is a close resemblance to today's Santa Claus, he still did not have his traditional red suit.

While Santa Claus became an established figure and showed up in different advertisements, he sometimes appeared thin, had a scraggly beard and, while he may have worn a red coat, sometimes wore a different colored hat. By 1881, Nast created an image called Merry Old Santa that showed Santa Claus in a red suit and with a fuller stomach, thicker beard, and rosy-red cheeks. Still, the image of Santa had yet to become standard. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum wrote and illustrated the book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, who wore a green coat with red boots. The book was published in the early 1900s.

While different companies did feature Santa Claus in a red suit trimmed in white throughout the early 1900s, it was not until 1931 that the full image became widely recognized. In 1931, the soda company Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a Christmas advertising campaign, after a successful ad created by artist Fred Mizen ran the year before. The Sundblom advertisements featured Santa Claus in full red suit, while drinking Coca-Cola. While many mistakenly credit Coca-Cola for creating the modern day image of Santa, the company is responsible for presenting the image that became the modern standard. Coca-Cola has continued to use Santa Claus in their advertising campaigns.

Victorian Santa Suit


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