Why Santa Wears Red

There has been some recent controversy over Santa’s ethnic background. But all modern-day Santas, be they white, black, or boozehound, wear the now iconic red suit with white trim.

Urban legend has it that Coca-Cola designed and popularized the Santa suit to match the company logo. In reality, Santa’s wardrobe was settled before Coke began their Santa advertising in the 1920s.

The Santa character is based on the gift-giving Saint Nicholas, in particular the Dutch personification of him, with influences from the jolly English Father Christmas. The rest of the Santa mythography – the sleigh, the reindeer, the chimney, etc. - comes from Washington Irving’s satire A History of New York, and “The Night Before Christmas,” an 1822 poem written by Clement Clarke Moore for the entertainment of his six children. It was published anonymously, but quickly went viral (yes, there were cultural viruses in the 19th century, too).

The poem’s only reference to Santa’s clothing is that “He was dressed in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” Depictions of Santa Claus from this era show him in many colors, including red, but very often green.

He was even shown wearing the American flag in a 1863 illustration in Harper’s Magazine by Thomas Nast, the illustrator who also popularized the use of the elephant and the donkey as symbols of the two major American political parties. Nast became the most prolific illustrator of Santa Claus yet, which made him a sort of personal stylist for Santa.

By the late nineteenth century, Nast had converged to consistent use of red and white for the Santa outfit, with Santa himself having already become a slightly more Eastern-European-looking version of the white-bearded, jolly, chimney-blocker we expect to find on our holiday Cokes today.

Nast’s version hadn’t quite vanquished all the other Santas by the end of Nast’s career in 1886 – note for instance this green-coated version on the cover of a popular children’s book in 1902 – but crimson tide had turned. By the time Norman Rockwell began painting Santa in the 1920s, he had no choice but to clothe his subject in the outfit his descendents have worn ever since: the Santa suit.        

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in December 2013. 

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