Santa Claus, Coca-Cola, and Nicholas of Myra

From The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus by Adam C. English. Copyright © 2012 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy which houses most of the relics of St. Nicholas.
Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy which houses most of the relics of St. Nicholas. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The most pervasive cultural image of Santa Claus today has nothing to do with the digital reconstruction of the bones in the Bari tomb but originated with a landmark ad campaign by Coca-Cola. In an effort to boost winter sales, attract younger consumers, and improve its image after attacks from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Coca-Cola Company in the early twentieth century hired artist Haddon Sundblom to paint the big man into its advertisements. From 1931 to 1964, Sundblom produced warm and richly colored Christmas scenes featuring a larger-than-life Santa posing cheerfully in various locations, always with a bottle of Coke. Thirty years of nostalgic, Norman Rockwellesque paintings plastered on billboards and in magazines fixed the modern image of the saint. The wide beard of white, the knobby nose, the wind-chapped cheeks, the bright eyes and grandfatherly smile, and of course, the red fur suit with white trim and black belt—this is Sundblom’s Santa. Every movie or television or commercial depiction since is based in some degree on Sundblom’s vision.

There is little connection between Sundblom’s artwork and the oldest visual image available of St. Nicholas of Myra, which can be dated to between the mid-600s and the mid-700s. That image is included on a panel painting divided into four rectangular boxes.

Image via
Image via

This icon resides in the historic Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, present-day Egypt. Its very existence is of special importance because Byzantine icons and religious art of antiquity suffered two cruel fates: first, the iconoclast movement of the eighth and ninth century eliminated most of the artwork, statues, and decorative pieces in churches, homes, and monasteries; and then, Western crusaders savagely laid waste to Constantinople and destroyed many of the remaining pieces in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. Fortunately, the Monastery of St. Catherine, situated in the wastelands of Egypt, stood out of reach of both fates. And, by a special donation of protection, it was spared from mistreatment and plunder by Arabs, whose armies seized the area in the seventh century. In this uniquely preserved image of St. Nicholas, we catch a very early glimpse of the man. His strong eyes speak of fearless resolve and confident authority. His long white beard shows wisdom, maturity, and gentleness. His hand of blessing represents his pastoral concern, and the Gospel book signifies his Christian orthodoxy. His priestly garb reminds us that he was a man of ministry, devoted to the worship of God and the care of God’s flock.

The contemporary picture of Santa Claus, however, is largely the byproduct of commercialization and advertisement. It is tied to the history of Coca-Cola, Hollywood’s movie industry, Walmart’s sales, shopping mall photo-ops, and the Internet. Of course, this Santa Claus image also tells an important story of American holiday culture, drawing on John Pintard’s Dutch dream of the New York Historical Society, Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, the enchanted scenery of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“T’was the Night Before Christmas”), the wily drawings and wood carvings of Thomas Nast, and the comical imagination of James K. Paulding. That image pulls from old and new alike, from old-world customs such as filling shoes and stockings with gifts to modern family traditions of watching animated Christmas specials on TV. Although all of these images are worth having, they do not get us any closer to the historical reality of Nicholas and shed no light on the fourth-century bishop who lived on the southern coast of what is now Turkey.

Interestingly, this subject has piqued the curiosity of more and more people in recent years. An uptick in the number of recent books and resources about the “real” St. Nicholas indicates a growing fascination with the topic. Titles include The Real Santa Claus: Legends of Saint Nicholas and The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from Around the World. A recent VeggieTales animated DVD for children includes silly songs and antics not about Santa Claus but about his predecessor, Saint Nicholas (Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving, 2009).

Unfortunately, most popular offerings on the subject of Nicholas are frustratingly uninformative. Many books have the appearance of historical work but offer little substance. They tell wonderful stories, but in the process repeat errors that are at least a thousand years old. Two examples of such problematic accounts are Joe Wheeler’s 2010 Saint Nicholas (Nashville: Nelson) and William J. Bennett’s 2009 The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas (New York: Howard Books). Wheeler is a gifted scholar and Nicholas devotee; Bennett is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and celebrated author of The Book of Virtues. Both enrich the holiday season with heartwarming tales and fascinating nuggets of trivia. But neither presents the best historical scholarship regarding the person of Nicholas. Instead, they weave together anecdotes—some factual and some fictitious—from a potpourri of sources lifted out of any and every era.

Most significantly, Wheeler and Bennett confuse the story of St. Nicholas of Myra with the story of another historical Nicholas. The mix-up dates back to the tenth century when Symeon Metaphrastes (c. 912–c. 982/7) made an ill-fated decision while compiling stories about the saints. He noticed two men in the historical record with the name of St. Nicholas: St. Nicholas of Myra, who died around 335, and St. Nicholas of Sion, who died in 564. Although they had lived near each other geographically, they were separated by two hundred years in time. Even so, Symeon must have reckoned that one grand story would be more edifying than two miniature ones. Or, more charitably, maybe he was unsure how to keep the two lives separate. Perhaps he did not recognize that they were different lives after all. The confusion of the two individuals must have been hard to avoid: modern archaeologists have found markers dedicating sites to osios Nicholas and hagios Nicholas. Both Greek words (osios and hagios) can be translated as “saint,” but, in ancient times a subtle distinction was made between osios, which was used to describe ascetic and monastic saints like Nicholas of Sion, and hagios, used to describe martyrs, confessors, and churchmen like Nicholas of Myra. A monastic saint was osios, and a priestly saint was hagios. Surely not everyone who told and retold the tales of osios Nicholas and hagios Nicholas knew or observed those fine-toothed distinctions. Nor have scholars been able to do so until very recently. In the early 1980s, Ihor Ševčenko and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko performed the valuable task of reproducing and translating into English the one complete Greek copy of the Life of St. Nicholas of Sion, indisputably demonstrating that it is a completely different story from a different time. Not only have they made available a fascinating Life from late antiquity, they have shown that Nicholas of Sion is a distinct person from Nicholas of Myra. Symeon Metaphrastes either did not know or did not heed the important distinction between the two homonymous individuals. In consequence, he merged the two accounts and transmitted them as if they were one. The product, of course, was not a true Nicholas but a new Nicholas, a third Nicholas that was little more than an amalgamation of biographies. Unfortunately, Symeon’s error stuck, and subsequent biographers like Wheeler and Bennett have simply repeated it. The result is that the true history of Nicholas of Myra remains muddled.