by Darius Wainright and Dafydd Townley
Television adverts are often emotive. From the numerous Go Compare commercials to the festive John Lewis tearjerker, they make us laugh, cry or yearn for the advert free haven that is the BBC. One advert that signaled the beginning of the Yuletide season (well at least for me anyway…) was the one run by the soft drinks manufacturer Coca Cola during the Christmas period. Released in 1995, it shows a child rushing to a truck full to the brim with the soda drink. On the back of the vehicle is the picture of a large Father Christmas, who upon seeing the child comes to life and waves.
Frequently depicted as a bearded, jolly and portly man, the real life Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, had a more austere lifestyle. Born in Myra (in the modern day Antalya province on Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline) in the 4th century, Saint Nicholas was a Greek Orthodox bishop who dedicated his life to Christianity. Despite living an impoverished lifestyle, he was notorious for his gift giving, canonized during the late 10th century due to the renown of his generosity. The modern day conception of Father Christmas used by Coca Cola here stems from an American poem, published in 1823, and titled A Visit From Saint Nicholas.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there; The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap…’
The above extract from the poem details what we would now think of as a typical Yuletide gift delivery. St. Nicholas lands on the top of a roof with his reindeer pulled air-borne sleigh. Sliding down the chimney carrying a bag of gifts, the saint fills the Christmas stockings, chuckles and then climbs back up the fireplace. The poem was an immediate hit, catching the imagination of the American public. Today, the text is recited to young children in the weeks running up to Christmas, and the poem is frequently referred to in festive music, books and films.
Prior to this, those of British ancestry referred to the saint as Father Christmas, imagining him to be a slim, amiable man dressed in all green fur who delivered gifts on the 25 December. Dutch descendants, in contrast, dubbed him Sinterklaas, believing him to be a stern, portly individual with white facial hair and bishop’s clothing. Unlike Father Christmas, Sinterklaas delivered his presents on the 6 December, the feast day of Saint Nicholas according to the Roman Catholic Church. A Visit From Saint Nicholas resulted in the convergence of these conceptions. Sinterklaas, Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas became one and the same. From the 1820s onwards, settlers in America observed the giving of gifts on the 25 December, with parents informing children that these presents had been delivered by an overweight, bearded man dressed in fur from top to tail.
Yet it was only with the Coca Cola adverts from the 1930s that we began to see Santa depicted as a large, jolly man with a red suit and white beard. Despite this identical conception of Santa Claus, the gift-giver was still depicted in various guises and costumes – many were convinced he was an elf, others thought of him as a Norse huntsman and some imagined him as a tall, gaunt man. The soft drinks manufacturer based their conception of Father Christmas on drawings by the 19th Century cartoonist Thomas Nast. From the beginning of the US Civil War in 1861 to his death in 1902, Nast had based his drawings of Santa upon the description of the man in A Visit From Saint Nicholas. His Father Christmas was therefore a portly man, with a white beard and of an amiable demeanour. Coca Cola applied this conception of Santa to their own adverts, dressing him in all red, the colour of the company’s label.
Why not combine Christmas with Coca Cola this year by trying the following recipe which Darius and Dafydd have found on the BBC Food pages:
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