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Culture - 12 February 2021

Why is Santa Claus dressed in red ?





1 - Starting point, the legend of Saint Nicholas, sometimes wearing a red cape

In the 11th century, a relic of Bishop Saint Nicolas, protector of children, widows and weak people, was transferred from Bari (Italy) to the Duchy of Lorraine. Since then, the cult of this saint has spread to several countries.


Even today, Saint-Nicolas is celebrated in several European countries: in France, in Germany, in Switzerland, in Luxembourg, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in Poland, in Austria … The legend says that in on the night of December 5 to 6, he goes through houses to bring goodies to good children (dried fruits, apples, cakes, candies, chocolates, gingerbread …).


“From the Middle Ages, Saint Nicolas is represented with a large beard, a bishop’s crook, a red cape and a miter (the bishop’s headgear)”, assures Nadine Cretin, author of Histoire du Father Christmas published by Le Pérégrinateur.


The legend of Saint Nicolas will then be grafted on the Germanic myth of the God Odin, able to fly in the air on his horse … This will inspire the famous sleigh of Santa Claus, pulled by reindeer.


2 - In the 19th century, American writers and cartoonists transform Saint Nicholas into an old elf dressed in red

In the 19th century, the character of Saint Nicholas was exported to the United States, notably via Dutch colonists. The English will distort the Dutch appellation “Sinterklaas” into “Santa Claus”.


In 1809, the American writer Washington Irving, in a satirical book, described Saint Nicholas as an old elf who “flies above the trees in a flying cart, carrying his gifts to the children”.


In 1822, an American pastor, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” for his grandchildren. St Nick’s “little old fellow and belly-up” arrives with a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, then descends into the chimney stack to distribute gifts to the children. This time he is no longer dressed as a bishop but wears a fur coat.


But it is the designer Robert Weir who draws it for the first time in a red and white costume in 1838. Saint Nicolas (not yet “Father Christmas”) appears as a grumpy little elf. Its small size also allows it to go through the fireplace …


"Thomas Nast then designed it in the 1860s with the same attributes: a red and white costume with a black belt, fur, a cap and paunchy, but more similar to today's Santa Claus"

Nadine Cretin


The first drawings of Thomas Nast representing “Santa Claus” were besides in black and white … They were colored later.

In 1921, the famous American illustrator Norman Rockwell also dressed “Saint Nick” in red for the cover of The Country Gentleman:

3 - Meanwhile, in Europe, coexist the pagan figures "Father Christmas" in England, the "Bonhomme Noël" in France and the more Christian "Christ Kind" in Germany.


The red color attributed to “Santa Claus” is not yet final. In the 19th century, several Anglo-Saxon illustrators represented Santa Claus in different colors: blue, green, gray, purple …


In England, from the 17th century, a more pagan figure existed, also inspired by the God Odin (see above). It is called “Old Father Christmas”, “Sir Christmas” or “Lord Christmas”.


He wears a long green hooded cape, a wreath of flowers, ivy or mistletoe. Yes, this Santa Claus symbolizes more the coming of spring than winter! He did not distribute gifts but went from house to house for supper. If we received it properly, it would make the long winter months less harsh!


In France, at the same time, Father Christmas was very different: he was sometimes nicknamed “Christmas man”, “Father January”, depending on the region. He is still dressed in a white and red winter costume, but he is skinny, very austere, and wears chopsticks on his belt to scold children who have not been good.


In Germany, from the sixteenth century, the Reformation of the German monk Martin Luther against the figure of the saints replaces Saint Nicholas by Christ Kind: Jesus, but come in the guise of a young girl, to distribute gifts.


Over time, these pagan representations of the English Father Christmas or the French Bonhomme Noël will mingle with that of the American “Saint Nicolas” represented more and more as a chubby and bearded old man in a red and white costume. During the 20th century, these multiple figures will become one: the Santa Claus of modern times.

4 - In the 1930s, Coca-Cola immortalized the figure of the chubby Santa Claus dressed in red and white

In the 1930s, Coca-Cola launched a major advertising campaign that featured the character of Santa Claus. It is Haddon Sundblom, American artist, who draws it. This time, it is an old man with red cheeks, paunchy, dressed in a red and white suit, with a rather sympathetic appearance: Santa Claus as we know him today.


The Coca-Cola campaign goes to the Southern Hemisphere – it’s a cold drink that is mostly drunk in summer, at the time – with this character dressed in winter clothes. This is the reason why Santa Claus continues to be imagined and represented thus in the countries of the Southern Hemisphere today!


This representation of Santa Claus imposed itself in France in the 1950s, with the rise of the Parisian department stores which encouraged, in their windows, to buy gifts for children for December 25.