Christmas, like many other annual occasions, whether secular or religious, is defined by a very distinct visual language that we see revived and reworked every year, reincarnated in ads, films, remakes of films, postcards, billboards, and many other media. Contemporary Christmas iconography is a complex network of current cultural production and older, historical sources of imagery. Some of the most prominent symbols, characters, and schemas of the holiday have evolved over years, decades, or even centuries. The use of red and green in Christmas-related paraphernalia, for instance, is among the oldest of these visual traditions, while the most popular image of Santa Claus we know today is a newer development. Regardless, while Christmas may have been dominated by scenes of the nativity in older times, perhaps during the Renaissance, the advent of mass-production and mass-communication has relegated modern Christmas to the realm of consumer culture. This essay will explore the historical development of said visual tradition, and the influence mass-marketing has had on it.

Thomas Nast, Santa’s Portrait, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881

To begin, the reason behind the ubiquity of red and green in Christmas-related media dates back to Medieval times, and maybe even further back in the past. In an NPR interview, co-author of The Secret Language of Color Arielle Eckstut cites the plant holly, with its dark green leaves and bright red berries, as exerting some influence over the connection between red and green and Christmas, explaining that it had been used in the Ancient Romans’ Winter Solstice celebrations and that it evokes Jesus’ crown of thorns. Additionally, however, there might be a more specific historical origin: 13th Century rood screens have been observed to heavily feature the red-green color combination. Shaped like doors, the Medieval artifacts that signified entryways to heaven and were an architectural element in churches that divided the clergy from the congregation. Materials scientist Spike Bucklow was among the first to investigate the recurrence of red and green in them; in an interview with Artsy magazine, he explained how the colors’ duality was not limited to the fact that they were complementary on the color wheel, but that there was a symbolic dimension to their relationship, one which is contingent on the materiality of Medieval paint.

A rood screen in Belaugh, St Peter. Photo courtesy of Pete Harmer, (www.flickr.com)

Iron-based pigments were used to make red paints, and iron was associated with the planet Mars, which in turn had an astrological connection to the Roman god of war. Green pigments, in turn, relied on copper for their verdance, a metal symbolically consigned to the planet Venus and the eponymous Roman goddess of love and beauty. As such, the visual relationship between red and green was attached to a slew of different polarities between war and peace, or masculinity and femininity. Although rood screens had well fallen out of use by the 18th Century, the 19th Century Gothic Revival saw the Victorians draw from the obsolete visual language of the rood screens and encode the red-green dynamism into their Christmas card tradition. However, as Eckstut points out, red and green were certainly not the primary or only color scheme used in Victorian Christmas media.

Christmas Postcard With Illustration of Santa Claus Attempting To Insert Frightened Child Into Sack, With “Happy Christmas”, 1900, Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society and Blue Santa With Children

The Victorians’ role in establishing modern Christmas symbology, in fact, goes beyond popularizing green and red in their Christmas cards. Their various conceptions of Santa Claus may be said to have prefigured his current incarnation. Some older versions of the merry gift-giver include a stern, punitive old man and one wearing blue or flamboyant green robes. There were numerous variations, but this changed in 1931 when the Coca-Cola Company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create an ad to boost soda sales during the cold of winter -this resulted in the inception of the most popular portrayal of Santa thus far. Sundblom based his design on Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas:

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
[…]
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,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
Haddon Sundblom, My Hat’s Off To The Pause That Refreshes, 1931, Oil on Canvas, Please Pause Here…Jimmy, 1932, Oil on Canvas, Thanks For The Pause That Refreshes, 1938, Oil on Canvas, Wherever I Go, Oil on Canvas, 1943, Things Go Better With Coke, 1964, Oil on Canvas, all in United States and Courtesy of Coca Cola.

What followed was a decades-long partnership between the company and Sundblom; the consistency of his depiction of Santa Claus, along with the company’s vast commercial power and coverage, allowed Sundblom’s Santa to be cemented in American and eventually global popular consciousness. Until 1964, Sundblom continued to paint Santa for the Coca-Cola Company, playing with different tropes, sometimes in response to the contemporary political climate. For example, a 1943 painting sees Santa carrying a sack of war bonds while posing next to the Earth -an explicit WWII reference. Meanwhile, a 1938 painting depicting a tender moment between Santa and a child underscores Coca-Cola’s efforts to lift consumers’ spirits during the dismal years of the Great Depression, something the company takes pride in on their website. What these examples demonstrate is the omnipresence of Sundblom’s Santa in both the commercial and political spheres, bolstering his omnipresence in American popular culture.

Fred Mizen, Department-Store Santa Drinking a Coke, 1930, United States. Courtesy of Coca Cola.

Although Sundblom and Coca-Cola did make a notable contribution to the image of Santa Claus in the public imagination, they cannot be credited with fully creating the character that appears in their ads. Besides drawing inspiration from Moore’s poem, Sundblom likely also leaned on a pre-existing repertoire of Santa depictions, including ones that matched his final chosen designs. Just a year before hiring Sundblom, for instance, Coca-Cola had commissioned artist Fred Mizen to paint a department-store Santa (resembling Sundblom’s) enjoying a coke at Famous Barr Co., then the world’s largest soda fountain. Additionally, illustrator Thomas Nast had illustrated a Santa similar to Sundblom’s in 1881 and another previously in 1963 for the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine. In 1907, St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls featured a red-hatted, white-bearded Santa Claus on their cover, and American painter Louis Prang also designed one comparable to Sundblom’s in 1885. What is more, White Rock, another soft beverage company, had used the red-wearing, paternal figure of Santa in some of their ads even before Coca-Cola started doing the same.

Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa, 1881, United States, Thomas Nast, Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly, 1863, United States, and Louis Prang, Santa Claus, 1885, United States.

Ultimately, however, it was Sundblom’s design in 1931 that won over corporate and consumer hearts with his kind countenance and jolly temperament. Sundblom’s paintings found their way into the Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Ironically, despite Sundblom’s decades-long partnership with Coca Cola company, promoting their signature beverage, he admitted in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview that he never could stand the stuff”. To add, Sundblom also created some of the most durable faces of consumer culture still present today, such as Quaker Oaks Quaker and (the problematic) Aunt Jemima. Besides that, he also illustrated for Maxwell House Coffee, Palmolive, Lincoln, and Ford. Recently, the American Postal Service collaborated with Coca Cola, selecting a some of Sundblom’s Santa paintings and turning them into a set of commemorative holiday stamps, furthering his legacy.

Haddon Sundblom and Greg Breeding, Sparkling Holidays, Stamps, 2018, United States. Courtesy of the American Postal Service.

It is thus clear that while past Christmas iconography was quite variegated, its symbols and patterns have been relatively homogenized and co-opted into the commercialized language of holiday-themed merchandise and advertisements. In some cases, this has meant stripping certain icons of the underlying principles they once symbolized, as can be seen in current Grinch ads. In others, however, the visual language is still tethered to its holiday’s original mores, as in the case of the promotion of charity organizations. This raises the question of whether a strong enough association with a certain visual language is able to completely transform the values innate to a cultural tradition or observation. Maybe we’ll find the answer under the Christmas tree this year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from our little artmejo family!

Image courtesy indicated in captions.