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Coca Cola and the Hijacking of Santa Claus

December 7, 2010

Tis the season as they say to be shopping, but it is also the time of the year when advertisements are trying to tap into “traditional” notions of Christmas.

Of course there is no greater icon for this time of the year than jolly old Saint Nicholas, more commonly known as Santa Claus. Whether we tell our children or not about the white-bearded man in a red suit, Santa Claus will be part of children’s consciousness at a very early age.

However, the current manifestation of Santa Claus is a drastically different one from traditional European Christian culture. In fact, the image we have of Santa Claus right now, with the red and white suit, is really a cultural creation of the Coca Coal Company.

In the later part of the 19th Century artists were depicting St. Nick in a variety of ways, with the red and white outfit being only one of them. However, Coca Cola, which was seeking to expand its marketing of their soda beverage from just a warm weather drink and Santa Claus became the perfect symbol to help them achieve that goal.

Starting in 1931, the company began running ads during the Christmas season where Santa Claus would be drinking or delivering Coca Cola along with the other presents. The popularity of the use of these images helped the company develop their brand as the preferred holiday beverage that persists til today.

Here is an example of a current Coca Cola commercial that utilizes Santa Claus as the one who, along with Coke, brings people together and makes our lives special. The magic of Santa Claus is demonstrated by his power to influence our lives as if we were characters in a snow globe.

However, all the associations we have of Santa Claus with Christmas is really a manifestation of modern consumer culture, where the emphasis is placed on buying and wanting presents. This is a far cry from the historical St. Nicholas, a bishop from the 3rd Century who provided comfort to the poor, particularly poor children.

After his death St. Nick was interpreted in all sort of ways, often based on regional and cultural myths. However, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th, where it is common practices still in some European countries to give gifts at that time.

Regardless of how one celebrates or acknowledges this 3rd Century bishop it is safe to say that the modern consumer culture has hijacked someone who would most likely be disgusted at the greed and materialism that currently surrounds his role at Christmas. Religious traditionalist may want to consider reclaiming the message of St. Nicholas, but it also seems that considering the economic hardships families face and the unhealthy message that adults send to children about the hyper-commercial significance of overspending and materialism that now drives Christmas, parents might consider some alternatives.

There are all kinds of suggestions about what to do differently during the Christmas season, but one good source for parents on alternatives to the hyper-commercial aspect of the holiday is the Commercial Free Holiday Guide put out by the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood.

If you are in West Michigan and you are looking for parents, educators and community activists that are combating commercial pressures targeted towards children, contact STOK (Stop Targeting Our Kids.)



One Comment leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    December 8, 2010 6:44 pm

    I find it interesting that in Europe, where many Americans find their roots, St. Nicholas Day and Christmas are modest days of giving small gifts, while here in America we seem to have remade Sinter Klaus into a shill for department stores and every other capitalist concern.

    Even in Germany, which is often stereotpyed as being “Christmas-mad,” St. Nicholas Day gifts are limited to a few pieces of marzipan, some chocolate coin wrapped in gold foil, and sometimes one small toy. If St. Nicholas shows up at school, he hands out school items like pencils and rulers.

    On Christmas in Germany, many gifts are homemade, even in wealthy families. A poll last year found that the most popular Christmas gift for both children and adults were books.

    Many other European countries don’t have a gift-giving tradition on Christmas. Instead, the emphasis is on family parties and shared meals.

    So America, once again, wins the “glut” award for overdoing, overbuying, and over-promoting. I’m really tired of living in a place that’s first in this category all the time…

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