The name, Santa Claus, comes from the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas (an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas). St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the ancient Greek city of Myra in the 4th century. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as anonymously leaving coins in shoes the villagers would place outside their doors. Although numerous feats of charity and even magic were attributed to St. Nicolas, he was not, historically speaking, associated with the bringing of gifts for children. As time went by, more and more acts of kindness and charity were added to his legend.
In 1863, cartoonist, Thomas Nast, was commissioned to do a painting of Santa Claus for an issue of Harper's Weekly, as part of a larger illustration entitled "A Christmas Furlough". Our modern notion of Santa has its roots in Nast's paintings. For example, he featured the North Pole as Santa's home, along with a workshop for building toys, and a large tome filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice. However, although Nast had included reindeer, a sleigh, and other 'Santa' related icons, the famous red suit was still yet to be done. Over the decades Santa would be depicted in a variety of colours, including blue, green, and yellow robes.
With his illustrations from the 1920s, it is artist, Norman Rockwell, who is to be credited with cementing Santa's 'red suit look'. But the image of the Santa we all know today was made popular by Coca Cola ads from the 1920s, and was painted by an artist named Haddon Sundblom.
His painting was not the first image used in the Coca Cola ads, and was very different from the earlier ones. Sundblom’s Santa radiated warmth, and cheerfulness. Inspired by Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, Sundblom painted a man with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and round belly, who played with the toys he delivered, and embraced the children that stayed up late waiting for him.
This version of Santa Claus reminded people of their favourite grandfather, and, debuting in 1931, it was an instant hit. It brought hope and joy to people whose spirits had been lowered by the Great Depression. Sundblom continued to create his Santa illustrations for Coca Cola until 1964. Now, it has become universally considered to be the image of the 'official' Santa Claus we see today.