02/12/2011 10:01 GMT | Updated 12/12/2011 13:11 GMT

Haddon Sundblom: The Man Who Painted Christmas

It’s a question many children wonder at this time of year: just how old is Santa Claus?

The answer of course depends on which version of him you’re talking about. For most people today there is only one: the round-bellied, rosy-cheeked man in red who announces himself on our televisions every November with a convoy of Coca-Cola lorries and the hushed promise that ‘Holidays are comin’. That Santa, you can tell any inquisitive youngsters, is 80 years old this winter.

Haddon Sundblom was the artist commissioned by The Coca-Cola Company in 1931 to create a ‘wholesome’ version of Father Christmas, and it’s his jolly image that any kid asked today to draw Santa Claus would approximate, giving rise to the popular theory that ‘Coca-Cola invented Christmas’.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time they’d latched on to the legend of St. Nick to sell more soft drinks. Coca-Cola had been refining the idea since the 1920s when their first Santa ad featured a stern-faced man who more closely resembled Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Union-supporting elf-Santa that first appear in Harper’s Weekly in 1862.

But by the '30s, the penny had dropped - if Santa Claus looked like the very incarnation of happiness, then by association, a bottle of Coke would start to seem like the incarnation of happiness too.

Sundblom set to work, drawing inspiration from the real inventor of modern Christmas, poet Clement Clark Moore, whose 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas - better known today as The Night Before Christmas - described Nick thus:

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow

Soon, arguably the most famous advertising icon in history was born as Michigan-born Sundblom spent the next 35 years painting the Father Christmas Coca-Cola still uses to this day. While earlier artists were first to give Santa a face, or even paint him as cheery, Sundblom was the first to give the world a consistent version of the man in the sleigh.

As Joanna Berry, Lecturer in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School, explains: "Whilst Sundblom didn’t invent Santa as the jolly, white haired rotund old man we all now expect, he certainly did more than anyone to imprint that image onto our minds in relation to Coca-Cola in one of the most enduring brand images ever to have been created."

Despite this wholesome association, Sundblom had his racier side. He regularly took breaks from Santa Claus to paint pin-ups and glamour pieces for calendars, including his final assignment, a painting for the cover of Playboy’s 1972 Christmas issue. But to label him a one-character painter or simply a purveyor of saucy caricatures would, according to Berry, be doing him a disservice.

"Roger T. Reed wrote that 'More than any artist including Norman Rockwell, Sundblom defined the American Dream in pictures, proved by his work for virtually the entire Fortune 500'. I think it’s important to remember that ‘Sunny’ was about a lot more than Santa.

"His ensuring legacy includes not only his body of work but also the many artists who went through his studio and came out influenced by his very clear style – including Howard Terpning, Gil Elvgren, Earl Blossom and Morgan Kane."

Nevertheless for most of us, Sundblom will always be remembered for the modern day St Nick.

See Haddon Sundblom's Santa Claus through the years:

Coca-Cola Santa Claus