Santa Claus: A Biography

Santa Claus: A Biography

by Gerry Bowler


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An entertaining, often surprising look at the life of the world’s most influential fictional character.

He is the embodiment of charity and generosity, a creation of mythology, a tool of clever capitalists. The very idea of him is enduring and powerful.

Santa Claus was born in early-nineteenth-century America, but his family tree goes back seven hundred years to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. Intervening generations were shaggy and strange — whip-wielding menaces to naughty boys and girls. Yet as the raucous, outdoor, alcohol-fuelled holiday gave way to a more domestic, sentimental model, a new kind of gift-bringer was called for — a loveable elf, still judgmental but far less threatening.

In this engaging social and cultural history, Gerry Bowler examines the place of Santa Claus in history, literature, advertising, and art. He traces his metamorphosis from a beardless youth into a red-suited peddler. He reveals the lesser-known aspects of the gift-bringer’s life — Santa’s involvement with social and political causes of all stripes (he enlisted on the Union side in the American Civil War), his starring role in the movies and as adman for gun-makers and insurance companies. And he demolishes the myths surrounding Santa Claus and Coca-Cola.

Santa Claus: A Biography will stand as the classic work on the long-lived and multifarious Mr. Claus.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780771016684
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Publication date: 11/13/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,189,215
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Gerry Bowler received his Ph.D. in History from King’s College, London, and presently teaches at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of Santa Claus: A Biography and The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, and the co-author of Europe in the Sixteenth Century. He has published works on topics ranging from Renaissance monarchy and Bloody Mary to the Simpsons, the Spice Girls, and the history of professional hockey. Dr. Bowler was the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his wife, Karen, and three daughters.

Read an Excerpt

It was an easier commercial fit in 1955 for makers of a laundry detergent who showed Santa dismayed by chimney soot on his nice red coat and proclaimed, “It’s a good thing that Tide keeps on working after other suds have quit!” but it was Haddon Sundblom’s famous paintings of Santa for the Coca-­Cola Company that were the best examples of this technique of turning the gift-­bringer into a product consumer. In the 1920s, the Coca-­Cola Company was recovering from attacks by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the federal government, and other critics of its soft-­drink formula. A U.S. senator had claimed in 1921 that the carbonated water beverage caused sterility in women and dissolved “brain power, and the digestive power and the moral fabric.” The company wanted advertising campaigns that emphasized relaxation and carefree refreshment and it also wanted to improve the sales of Coca-­Cola during the winter months. To these ends they turned to a Chicago illustrator named Haddon Hubbard Sundblom, a hard-­drinking, six-­foot-­three commercial artist who was able to capitalize on the well-­established image of Santa Claus that existed by 1931.

It is far too frequently believed that Sundblom’s work for Coca-­Cola created the familiar red-­and-­white-­clad Santa of the modern era. In fact, the Coke Santa was in no way groundbreaking; illustrators for the Saturday Evening Post such as J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell had already helped fix the standard Santa in the public’s mind.* Nor was the Atlanta company even the first purveyor of soda to use the gift-­bringer in its ads. That honour belongs to the White Rock Natural Mineral Spring Company of Waukeshar, Wisconsin, which advertised mineral water and ginger ale in Life magazine in 1923 and 1924. Two full-­page ads show a portly Santa Claus, reading letters and delivering presents, with a bottle of White Rock and (despite Prohibition) a whisky bottle close at hand. In these presentations Santa closely resembles the gift-­bringer the New York Times described as the prototype in its November 27, 1927, issue: “Height, weight and stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite makeup.”

Sundblom’s genius in his decades of work for Coca-­Cola was not that he added anything to our knowledge of Santa Claus but that he made a familiar image even more likeable and widespread. Sundblom’s vision of the gift-­bringer emphasized lavishness and self-­indulgence. In the middle of the Depression, he scorned the meagre street-­corner and department-­store Santas to produce one who was the roliest-­poliest yet, clad in an abundance of furs, with a jaunty angle to his white moustache, and a penchant for raiding other people’s refrigerators. Sundblom’s early paintings such as “My hat’s off to the pause that refreshes” and “Away with a tired thirsty face” continued the notion of Coke as an almost-­medicinal pick-­me-­up, but it was his “Me too” (1936) that introduced the theme of Santa Claus as an out-­of-­control consumer. Here he is portrayed with his red jacket off, making himself at home in an unsuspecting family’s living room, playing with the toys under the Christmas tree, and lifting a wasp-­waisted bottle to his lips. He is even more brazen in the next year’s campaign. A shameless Santa has raided the family’s supply of Coke and he has ripped a drumstick from the Christmas turkey, justifying his theft with a specious plea to reciprocity: “‘Give and take’ say I.” Later campaigns would try to soften this image of a midnight raider, implying that Santa Claus had been left bottles of Coke by a grateful family. In 1938, he approvingly notes, while holding a bottle, that “Somebody knew I was coming”; in 1943, he relaxes in an armchair holding a note that reads, “Dear Santa, Have a ‘Coke’ = welcome at our house. Your Pal xxx”; and in 1945, even before entering the house, Santa has spotted a familiar bottle and letter and remarks smugly, “They knew what I wanted.”

There is no evidence that these advertisements ever led to a nation of children preparing a plate of cookies and a bottle of Coke for the gift-­bringer, but the ads were enormously popular and became a part of the North American Christmas landscape. Sundblom produced at least one a year from 1931 to 1964, and at one point his work graced half of all of Coca-­Cola’s billboards. His first model was Lou Prentice, a retired neighbour, and after Prentice’s death in the late 1940s Sundblom used himself as the image of Santa Claus. (Though Sundblom was credited for these attractive renditions of Santa, he was not allowed to paint the bottle of Coca-­Cola itself. He was commissioned to deliver his canvases unfinished so that another artist with a finer touch could add a flawless image of the bottle, including the line of text asserting its trademark and patent.) The overwhelming ubiquity of these advertisements — with the Coca-­Cola-­swilling Santa Claus presiding over busy street corners from his perch on billboards, to life-­sized cutouts positioned in strategic store aisles, to his face in magazines found in living rooms and bathrooms across the nation, and nowadays to a host of retro “collectibles” hawked on eBay — ensured that no rival version of Santa could emerge in the North American consciousness.

Table of Contents


I - His Long Gestation and Obscure Birth II - His Youth and Character Development III - Santa as Advocate IV - Santa the Adman V - Santa the Warrior VI - Santa at the Movies (and in the Jukebox Too)
VII - Does Santa Have a Future?


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Santa Claus 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an entertaining and thought-provoking look at Santa Claus from a number of perspectives: his origins and evolution, his role as advocate, ad-man, warrier and cultural icon, as well as whether he has a future.Well written, easy to read.