The Story of Santa Claus and his Coca-Cola connection

He’s a familiar figure we see often this time of year, and goes by many names. Whether he’s called Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, or any other moniker, he is instantly recognizable in his red suit and hat, fluffy white beard, and plump figure. But what does Santa have to do with the history of health care?

To begin, the way that we think Santa Claus looks now is not the way he has always been portrayed– before 1931, he sometimes looked tall and skinny, or even scary! This is closer to what he looked like when Coca-Cola began featuring Santa Claus in advertisements in the 1920s. In 1931, everything changed with artist Haddon Sundblom, who was commissioned to create a more wholesome, realistic Santa for the company’s advertisements. Inspired by Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Sundblom shaped the image of Santa we know today over the course of about thirty years, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Ironically enough, Santa’s red coat, which many people attribute to Coca-Cola since their company’s colour is red, appeared long before Sundblom’s famous art!

So why does the Museum of Health Care have bottles of Coca-Cola in its collections? When Coca-Cola was first sold in the late-nineteenth century, it was marketed as a patent medicine which could cure headache, neuralgia, melancholy, hysteria, morphine addiction, and more. This was because it contained cocaine, from the coca leaves from which it was made, and caffeine, from kola nuts. It was not until around 1903-1904 that the company removed cocaine from the popular drink due to changes in laws surrounding the drug.

Coca Leaves-Museum of Health Care 000001078
Commemorative Coca-Cola bottle for the company’s 75th anniversary–Museum of Health Care
Granulated Kola Astier–Museum of Health Care 1991.17.44

To learn more about these artifacts and more, visit our online collection catalogue by clicking the button below.

Shaelyn Ryan <br>(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)
Shaelyn Ryan
(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)

Shaelyn Ryan is a recent graduate of Queen’s University, having completed her Bachelor’s degree in History in 2021, and is returning to Queen’s in the fall to pursue a Master’s degree in History. Either as a Summer Student or Work-Study Student through Queen’s University, Shaelyn has helped catalogue and research many of the museum’s collection of artefacts as a Collections Technician (since 2018). 

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