Santa Claus has become a worldwide sales phenomenon who hypes everything from cars to candies. His rise to “Best Salesman in History” status didn’t happen overnight. His story began over 1600 years ago in a city called Myra, in what is now modern-day Turkey. Back in the early fourth century C.E. he was known as Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Within a century, he would be known as Saint Nicholas, the giver of gifts. If you would like to see what the real St. Nicholas might have looked like, click on this link to see a BBC facial reconstruction.
There are several stories about how Saint Nicholas earned his reputation as a gift giver. One story is associated with crop failure and famine in Myra in the years 311 and 312. “Bishop Nicholas learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargos of wheat had anchored in the harbor. The holy man implored the sailors to take a measure of grain from each ship so that the people would have food. The sailors said, ‘No,’ as the wheat was ‘meted and measured’ and every bit must be delivered. Nicholas replied, ‘Do this, and I promise, in the truth of God, that it shall not be lessened or diminished when you get to your destination.’ So the sailors took a measure from each ship and continued on their way to Alexandria. When the wheat was unloaded, the full amount was accounted for and the tale told — all the emperor’s ministers worshiped and praised God with thanksgiving for his servant Nicholas. Throughout the famine people came to Bishop Nicholas for wheat. He gave it to all who had need and the grain lasted for two years with enough remaining to plant new crops.” [“Bishop of Myra,” St. Nicholas Center]
In another story, Nicholas, who was reportedly the son of wealthy parents, saves a young girl from being sold into slavery by tossing gold coins through an open window at her house where, by chance, they land in one of the girl’s stockings that had been hung by the fireplace to dry. Soon children in the town started hanging stockings by the fireplace in the hope that Bishop Nicholas would leave them a gift. A third, but similar story, involves three daughters of a poor merchant who were about to be forced into prostitution since they had no marriage dowries. Saint Nicholas saved them from a life of sin by dropping three bags of gold into the merchant’s chimney enabling them to get married. Regardless of how his reputation was earned, St. Nicholas eventually became known as a kind and loving benefactor for children. By the middle ages, his reputation seemed secure and churches all over Europe were dedicated in his name. His feast day, celebrated on the anniversary of his death — December 6th — became a time of gift giving. The custom of gift giving on St. Nicholas’ Feast Day in 16th century Germany was described by Thomas Naogeorgus in this way:
Saint Nicholas money used to give
To maidens secretly,
Who, that he still may use
His wonted liberalitie
The mothers all their children on the eve
Do cause to fast
And when they every one at night
In senselesse sleepe are cast
Both Apples, Nuttes, and peares they bring,
And other things besides
As caps, and shooes and petticotes,
Which secretly they hide,
And in the morning found, they say
That this Saint Nicholas brought.
The world nearly lost St. Nicholas during the reformation when the practice of honoring saints was looked upon with disfavor. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. St. Nicholas probably crossed the Atlantic with immigrant Germans who brought the tradition of gift giving on his feast day with them. They are believed to have shared this tradition with their Dutch relatives in New York City, where, following the Revolutionary War, St. Nicholas was promoted as the patron saint of the city. The Dutch referred to St. Nicholas as Sinterklaas. In January 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical book entitled, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, that included numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. The St. Nicholas Center notes that, “rather than a saintly bishop, Irving’s St. Nicholas was an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. By some accounts, Irving’s work was regarded as the ‘first notable work of imagination in the New World’.” With that, almost all of the puzzle pieces that make up the modern day Santa Claus persona were in place. The last two pieces were provided by cartoonist Thomas Nast, who started drawing St. Nicholas in 1863, and the poem entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known to many as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,”) which was first published in New York’s Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1893. The poem has been traditionally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore but the ancestors of Henry Livingston, Jr., have made a strong case for his authorship. Almost all modern-day images of the jolly old elf can be traced back to those nineteenth century sources.
Perhaps no brand is associated with Santa Claus as much as Coca-Cola. In 1931, Coca-Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom to create magazine ads. Inspired by “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Sundblom drew iconic images that more or less solidified Santa’s look and feel. Coca-Cola claims, “Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because Sundblom’s portrayal of him appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on Coca‑Cola advertising.” [“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Coca-Cola Company] Today Santa sells everything and his image can be found around the world. Santa is the undisputed king of sales and like St. Nicholas, the good Bishop of Myra, he is known for his kindness to children and his generous spirit. If Santa can teach marketers one lesson, that lesson is that imagery (and what that imagery represents) matters a lot.
Lest you think that Santa has only recently become a sales icon, let me quote from an article published 8 December 1910 in a magazine called Printers’ Ink. Entitled “Santa Claus and the Xmas Appeal in Advertising,” it was written by Kirke S. Pickett, who believed that Santa was a better salesman than the advertisers of his day gave him credit for. Pickett wrote:
“[Santa] still reigns supreme in the advertising of gifts for children — for toys especially he seems to be the sine qua non, with his bag full of trinkets slung over his shoulder. But those advertisers who are selling grown-up gifts show little disposition to put up Santa as a pictorial figurehead.”
Two things should be noted. First, even as early as 1910, Santa Claus had a long and well-known history of being used in advertising. Second, rather than seeing his role diminished in selling products to adults it has actually increased over the past century. Pickett noted that one advertising executive grumbled about the fact that Santa was used to sell all sorts of goods, even brands that never observe the Christmas holidays. In response, Pickett wrote:
“This man incidentally is a bachelor. With no children of his own to revive his ancient speculations of Santa Claus, or even make him charitable in judging cheerful myth, he may be mistaken in his estimate of Santa Claus as a salesman. … So unromantic a product as soap is being advertised with Santa Claus. The Christmas Ivory Soap copy has a child sitting before a grate with a pretty, brightly painted soap message for Santa. Such a whimsical yet suggestively practical application of the Santa Claus myth is quite defensible and different. … One advertising manager who was asked why he could not profit from the use of Santa Claus in his Christmas publicity seemed very certain that the paucity of fireplaces, and therefore chimneys, in modern city apartments has him a stranger in town. Santa Claus still may be roaming over the housetops of country homes, where fires in open grates roar up in wide chimneys. It would be ridiculous to show him coming down a city fire escape. Therefore, this wise gentleman concluded an advertiser who would make his copy most generally appealing must leave Santa Claus alone. He cannot afford to recognize a personage whose appeal would be only to those who live beyond the limits of cities. Thus has Santa Claus been brought low, measured with the tape of business efficiency, and found wanting. Santa Claus’ reply doubtless would be, if he were asked about the matter, that he had never asked, in the first place, to be the advertising man, and that he had more important things to attend to during his few days a year on earth than to dig up orders for unbelieving sales managers. Accordingly, exit Santa Claus, smiling.”
Pickett might be surprised how well Santa has managed as a salesman, even in world that is mostly urbanized. Santa may not have asked to be an advertising man. But he became the best one in history. I should probably mention that Santa is also famous for his incredible supply chain (which is demand oriented) and his impressive order fulfillment record (which has overcome the last mile challenge through the use of a sleigh and reindeer).