A Saint, Three Men and a Bottle of Coke

In the beginning there was a saint. Tall, lean and genial – Saint Nicholas was the Greek Christian bishop from Myra. Adored by the poor women and children as the giver of goodies. Six hundred years after he died his resting place was vandalised by invaders. So the Merchants of Bari removed his major bones from the sarcophagus and interred them in the Basilica di San Nicola. His smaller relics were picked by some sailors of Venice who built the Monastery of San Nicolo Al Lido on them. Saint Nicholas eventually became the patron saint for people from many diverse groups: sailors, pawnbrokers & children.

800 years later in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore writes a famous poem which has a story that is retold to this day. In ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, a father of a family spots the round, potbellied St Nicholas on an airborne sleigh pulled by eight reindeers by outside his door on the night of Christmas. He then watches him sneak in somehow through the chimney and leave the gifts in the stockings. And ride off into the night after winking at the father, wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

Forty years after the poem, Thomas Nast, a great civil war cartoonist was swaying public opinion and helping Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant win their presidential elections with his popular newspaper cartoons. But he makes his most enduring sketch in 1863 for the cover of the Harper Weekly magazine. Nast creates the first modern version of Santa Claus that would be replicated forever.

And then finally 70 years after Nast in 1931, Haddon Sundblom, a Michigan born illustrator was asked by Coca Cola Company’s advertising agency to paint a real Santa for their new ad campaign. Sundblom now gets inspired by Moore’s poem and Nast’s iconic sketch. He paints the plump, pot-bellied, happy and wholesome Santa in the red tunic with a bottle of Coke. He would do many more versions for the next 30 years. And Coke does everything right to make it their biggest Christmas story, year after year, for many decades.

That’s how the Saint, Three Men and a bottle of Coke come together to create a most beloved cultural icon of our times.

Story Notes:

Lots of ‘em! First of all, Wish you a Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!

So much about the original Saint Nicholas is not like the image of Santa that we have today. But at the core he was loved for his giving nature and had become the patron saint for so many groups. The wiki pages on him are fairly exhaustive

A Visit By Saint Nicholas’ is hailed as the greatest ever poem written in American History. It was first published anonymously but Clement Clark Moore claimed it much later in 1837. The poem had many other names – most commony referred to as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. What it did though was to be lay the story of what Santa does on the night of Christmas forever.

You must set out some time to read up on other great things that Thomas Nast achieved. Apart from creating Santa, he also created the Reublican’s Elephant and popularised the Democrat’s Donkey, besides the iconic Uncle Sam. His tough cartoons also created the legend that the word NASTY came after his name.

Finally, Coca Cola has put out enough stories on Santa Claus and Coke. They have done their best to dismiss the story that Coke created Santa. But everytime they do that, the legend builds even more. Lots of stuff on Haddon Sundblom and his iconic paintings here.

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