What To My Wondering Eyes Should Appear

The Visual Evolution of Santa Claus

During the holiday season, every shopping mall in the United States and beyond, is graced by the presence of a Santa Claus, and every mall’s Santa looks almost exactly the same. Who pictured that look? Illustrators did.

Illustrators bring characters to life.
Sometimes illustrators are character creators and sometimes they are character depicters. In this case, it is the latter. Many illustrators, over the course of decades, shaped the look of the Santa Claus character we recognize today. Below is a small sampling of Santa’s first hundred years in print, which shows the evolution of the character in the United States from a saint, St. Nicholas, pictured in religeous garments, to a secular character in a red suit and boots. We can see how illustrators tinkered with the image, while being influenced by earlier popular depictions. Illustrators today are loath to break from the traditions formed by our visual forbearers. After all, recognition is the key to visual communication. As for the reasons why the character kept the name St. Nicholas while adding the names Kris Kringle and Santa Claus, that’s a different story that I’ll leave for others to explain. 
Highlights from the images

1. 1810: Woodcut of St. Nicholas by Alexander Anderson, created for members of the New York Historical Society. The image shows St. Nicholas in his saintly garb and associated with gifts, children, and stockings hung by the fire.

2. 1821: One the earliest illustrations (artist unknown) of Santa Claus, the secular character having evolved from St. Nicholas. This picture was created for a sixteen-page booklet titled A New Years Present for The Little Ones From Five to Twelve, Part III, and shows him on a rooftop with his sleigh and a reindeer for the first time. This image preceeds A Visit from St. Nicholas (Twas the Night Before Christmas) attributed to Clement C. Moore which was published in 1822 and was very influential ever after because of its description of St. Nicholas-Santa Claus.

3. 1837: Robert Walter Weir created this painting which hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. Weir, considered a member of the Hudson River School of artists, is most famous for his historical paintings in Washington’s U.S. Capital rotunda. 

4. 1840: Early illustration (artist unknown) of A Visit from St. Nicholas (Twas the Night Before Christmas). Notice in how these early pictures, St. Nicholas was a “jolly old elf” back then too, and making it more understandable how he came down the chimney.

8. 1869: This Thomas Nast illustration is from his book, Santa Claus and his Works (written by George P. Webster). Nast was a famous political cartoonist and illustrator appearing regularly on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. He’s credited with solidifying our image of Santa by closely matching it to Moore’s poem (which he later illustrated in a full color book in 1880). Santa Claus is “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot” -in a red suit. Nast is also praised for creating a Santa with much more goodwill and cheer. He was the most famous illustrator of his day, credited with creating the characters of Uncle Sam and the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties; the donkey and elephant. No doubt, his popularity played a role of his influence on the look of Santa.

15. 1912: Jessie Wilcox Smith is most famous for her seminal Mother Goose illustrations. It’s interesting to see her approach to Santa. She wasn’t buying the red suit.

16. 1920: Norman Rockwell’s first Santa for a cover of the Saturday Evening Post. In 1916 he painted “Playing Santa” for the cover, which wasn’t quite the real Santa Claus. He’d go on the paint countless others. Notice how Santa Claus is no longer an elf.

17. 1925: J.C. Leyendecker was Norman Rockwell’s biggest influence. He was known for creating beautifully designed vignetted images on the page (as opposed to extending the painting to it’s borders with backgrounds). Although this image was created after the first Rockwell Christmas cover, there is no doubt that he painted Santa Clauses that predate it, as he was a generation older. It’s my belief that Haddon Sundblom’s Coca-Cola Santas were influenced by the aesthetics and character design of Leyendecker, as seen in their stylized, idealized worlds and bold brushwork. (Rockwell was more of a realist when it came to surfaces and figures, not prone to emphasizing brushwork.)

19. 1925: N.C. Wyeth created this painting for the cover of Country Gentleman magazine and exhibits the strengths of the influential illustrator, namely, drama and mood. 

20. 1931: Haddon Sundblom’s first of a decades-long series of Christmas Coca-Cola advertisements. Between the incredible length and breadth of this advertising campaign, and the talents of this illustrator, it is undoubtable that Santa is now expected to be seen as Sundblom pictured him. 

More images by Haddon Sundblom, the illustrator of the Coca Cola Santas and the reigning influencer of all would-be Santas.


“The Coca-Cola Santa made its debut in 1931 in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared regularly in that magazine, as well as Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and others. The instantly popular ad campaign appeared each season, reflecting the times.Haddon Sundblom continued to create new visions of Santa Claus through 1964. For decades after, Coca-Cola advertising has featured Santa’s image based on Sundblom’s original works.


People loved the Coca-Cola Santa images and paid such close attention to them, that when anything changed, they sent letters to The Coca-Cola Company. One year, Santa’s large belt was backwards (perhaps because artist Haddon Sundblom used himself as a model and painted by looking in a mirror). Another year, Santa Claus appeared without a wedding ring, causing fans to write asking what happened to Mrs. Claus.
In the beginning, artist Haddon Sundblom painted the image of Santa using a live model — his friend, Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. When Prentiss passed away, Sundblom used himself as a model, painting while looking into a mirror. After the 1930s, he used photographs to create the image of St. Nick.


The children who appear with Santa Claus in Haddon Sundlbom’s paintings were based on Sundblom’s neighbors. However, the neighbors were both girls, and Sundblom simply changed one to a boy in his paintings. The dog in the 1964 original Santa Claus painting by artist Haddon Sundblom was actually a gray poodle belonging to the neighborhood florist. Sundblom painted the animal with black fur, instead, to make the dog stand out in the holiday scene.” The Coca-Cola Company

Further Observation 

Being Santa Claus is more than just looking the part.




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