Christmas (in old English: Crīstesmæsse, meaning "Christ’s Mass") is as we all know an annual Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It closes the Advent season and initiates the twelve days of Christmastide.
However the way we celebrate Christmas in the western culture has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, as the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter explains in an article today. Reading this article, I decided to write two brief blog posts about my own thoughts on the evolution and current understanding of Christmas.
Today I start on the lighter side, with this post about Santa Claus, Coca Cola and innovation.
Many years ago (in 1997) I spent the Christmas season in Istanbul, where I wanted to understand the Moslem traditions during this time of the year. Apart from the usual consumerism, I found limited signs of Christmas celebrations, except in Richmond Hotel on Istiklal Caddesi where the British and other European expats held their celebration.
Another sign I found was a picture of Santa Claus on the Coca Cola cans in a cinema I visited to watch the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
I found the Santa labeled can odd and at first, I thought these cans had been delivered to Turkey by mistake. Then I noticed they were made in Turkey. Back at my hotel doing some research, I found that the roots of Santa Claus are in Turkey.
To be precise St. Nicholas was born in Patara in the 3rd century and moved to Myra where he became a bishop and did his many good deeds. Allegedly he dropped bags of money down the chimneys to help people. But today, in a country with a 98% Muslim population, Christmas is a day like any other day.
How St Nicholas became Santa Claus became Father Christmas
As the bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas was credited not only for his generosity but also with doing a number of miracles involving sailors and children. After his death this led him to become a patron saint and as a saint he was given his own "feast day" that was celebrated on December 6th.
At about the same time St. Nicholas lived, Pope Julius I decided to establish a date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. As the actual time of year for this event was unknown, the Pope decided to assign the holiday to December 25th. There had long been a pagan midwinter festival at this time of year and the Pope hoped to use the holiday to Christianize the celebrations.
Eventually, St. Nicholas’s feast day also became associated with December 25th and his connection with Christmas was established. A tradition developed that he would supposedly visit homes on Christmas Eve and children would place nuts, apples, sweets and other items around the house to welcome him.
As the reformation took a hold of much of Europe, the popularity of St. Nicholas dropped in most Protestant countries, with the exception of Calvinist Holland where he was referred to as "Sinterklaas". After this tradition came to the United States with Dutch immigrants, "Sinterklaas" would eventually be transformed to "Sancte Claus." Meanwhile, the historical St. Nicholas remains commemorated and revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians.
The most important single source for our modern day version of Santa Claus comes from the Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the general public and included what became the now famous picture of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast (see right).
Actually the old cult of Santa Claus incorporates many traditions: Christian and Pagan, Old Catholic, Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English. Santa brings us all together! Kids all over the world know who Santa is… And although he may be a little commercial in our modern times, who can help, but love the jolly old man? It’s the Idea of giving that reminds us; we are all on this planet together, for the long run.
Below is the famous poem by Clement C. Moore:
The modern Santa Claus
The image of the round figure with the red cap, the red coat with white frills, snow-white hair and beard, the sleigh pulled by reindeers and with a bag filled with Christmas gifts is a source of delight to modern children and adults.
Even NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is keeping up the myth with the annual 24 hour Santa Tracker. The tracker keeps a graphic “live camera” on Santa as he travels the earth, delivering gifts during the 24 hours of Christmas day.
The modern image of father Christmas is extraordinary and magic. The American Santa Claus, Father Christmas, is usually known as the innovation of Clement C. Moore, Washington Irving and other nineteenth-century New Yorkers, who aimed at creating a benign figure that might help call down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus then on the family.
Thomas Nast’s illustrations helped establish a figure that looks fairy close to the modern Santa, but wait, why is there a Coca Cola symbol and bottle in the classic 19th century picture of Santa Claus?
How Coca Cola co-branded with Santa Claus
Coca-Cola is little more than sugar, some flavoring, and lots of (carbonated) water. It is largely indistinguishable from innumerable other brands of cola, yet people around the world seem to think that Coca-Cola is something and they are eager to ask for it by name and even to pay a premium for it.
The Coca-Cola brand is 125 years old, but the company is not too old to learn and does not rest on historical success. Coke’s marketing strategies have produced some volatility over its history, but in part of that is due to willingness of The Coca-Cola Company to innovate.
Both books and academic articles claim that the culture at Coca-Cola has a lot to do with its success. The company culture is said to encourage learning from both successes and failures, which is a must given the size and scale of The Coca-Cola Company.
Coca-Cola has a status as a marketing model and is one of the most interesting case studies for referencing best practices in marketing and market research. As such, it provides examples for other mega multinational brands and for mid-size and upstart brands to consider, and follow, if they can. Among other innovations, they have been pioneers in co-branding in their marketing.
Coca-Cola has brought up its share of smaller brands. The strategically identified partnerships and many creative ideas, some might call them marketing stunts, have accomplished a great deal. There are many good reasons for AdvertisingAge to name Coca-Cola as marketer of the year in 2011.
The Coca-Cola Company is taking a three-dimension approach to growth: (1) Product innovation, (2) packaging innovation, and (3) consumer engagement. Coca-Cola has developed a 2020 Vision with which it intends to double revenue and servings volume. Over the next eight years, Coca-Cola is hoping to duplicate the efforts of 125 years of product developing and customer engagement.
Returning to the connection between Coca Cola and Santa Claus, in 1931, the Coca Cola Company commissioned Haddon Sundblom, a Michigan-born illustrator and already a creative giant in the advertisement industry, to develop commercial images using Santa Claus.
Sundblom turned to Clement Moore’s classic poem for inspiration. The ode’s description of the jolly old elf inspired Sundblom to create an image of Santa that was friendly, warm and human, a big change from the sometimes-harsh portrayals of Santa up to that time. He painted a perfectly lovable grandfather figure, with a white beard flowing over a long red coat outlined with fur, an enormous brass buckle fastening a broad leather belt, and large boots.
Sundblom’s Santa was very different from other Santa Claus artworks. His Santa radiated warmth, reminded people of their favorite grandfather, a friendly man who lived life to the fullest, loved children, enjoyed a little honest mischief, and feasted on snacks left out for him each Christmas Eve.
Coca-Cola’s Christmas campaign featuring this captivating Santa ran year after year. As distribution of Coca-Cola and its ads spread around the world, Sundblom’s Santa Claus became more memorable each season, in more and more countries.
The character became so likable, The Coca-Cola Company and Haddon Sundblom struck a partnership that would last for decades. Over a span of 33 years, Haddon Sundblom painted new versions of the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus” for for Coke advertising, retail displays and posters.
Sundblom initially modeled Santa’s smiling face after the cheerful looks of a friend, retired salesman Lou Prentiss. “He embodied all the features and spirit of Santa Claus,” Sundblom said. “The wrinkles in his face were happy wrinkles.” After Prentiss passed away, the Swedish-American Sundblom used his own face as the ongoing reference for painting the now-enduring, modern image of Santa Claus.
Haddon Sundblom passed away in 1976, but The Coca-Cola Company continues to use a variety of his timeless depictions of St. Nicholas in holiday advertising, packaging and other promotional activities. The classic Coca-Cola Santa images created by Sundblom are as well-known today as the character they represent and have become universally accepted as the personification of Santa Claus for both children and adults.
So, this was the story of how the Christian church co-branded a saint with a pagan mid winter feast to enhance the Christian religious message. The same saint then was transformed into a more popular figure in 19th century New York and in the 20th century was further developed as a co-branding tool for commercial corporate innovation. In deed the image of Santa Claus that we know today has been drastically transformed over the past 100 years.