You Should Know…Haddon Sundblom

If you are looking for some new sources of inspiration, we’d like to introduce you to some distinctive artists, designers, and illustrators—both past and present—that we think ‘you should know.’ Some may be lesser known while others may seem vaguely familiar, either way you will discover unique talents that might just influence your next project.

As Christmas fast approaches, we are inundated with ubiquitous pictures of jolly old St. Nick promoting all sorts of merchandise. Plump, rosy-cheeked and dressed in his signature red suit with black belt and boots, the seemingly universal image of Santa Claus is burned into our collective consciousness. The idea of “Father Christmas” as a product spokesman is also a normal part of most people’s holiday season.

You may be surprised to learn that our standardized version of St. Nicholas actually came about in 1931 through the joint efforts of advertising executive Archie Lee and Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Working with the Coca-Cola Company, Lee wanted to develop a more realistic and playful image of Santa Claus for an advertising campaign designed to bolster winter sales of Coca-Cola products. He hired Sundblom, a rising star in the commercial illustration field, to bring this vision to life.1


Up to that point, Santa was not always depicted wearing red clothes and a happy grin. Instead, he actually assumed numerous forms—from a small, chubby elf to a tall, scrawny man. His fashion was also anything but uniform—from purple bishop robes to animal fur coats. He occasionally appeared harsh and stern, with a menacing gaze—hardly like the character we see today.1

The young illustrator, who received his “education” through a combination of night school art lessons and several years as an apprentice for a Chicago-based design studio2, set out to redefine the image of Santa Claus into one that was more wholesome, marketable and widely accepted. Sundblom sought inspiration from the ultimate Christmas source material—the 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore.3

“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…He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.”4

With this vivid description in hand, Sundblom then turned to his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesmen, to serve as a living model for his initial sketches of Santa.1 “The wrinkles in his face were happy wrinkles,” Sundblom said. “He embodied all the features and spirit of Santa Claus.”5


Sundblom’s commercial illustrations of Santa Claus enjoying ice-cold Coca-Cola were an instant success. Consumers so admired the fun-loving images of a happy-go-lucky and often mischievous St. Nick that they even wrote fan letters to the Coca-Cola Company.1 As the public’s admiration grew with each new illustration, the physical characteristics and personality traits of Santa Claus were formed into the icon we know today.


Over a 45-year span, Sundblom created 40 illustrative oil paintings—developing an entire universe for his Coca-Cola-loving Santa Claus.5 He employed neighbors, friends, family members, and the occasional pet to model for the multiple characters in the world his Santa inhabited. Sundblom also got into the act himself when, after the passing of Prentiss, he used his own face as the visual reference for “Father Christmas.”1 Gracing billboards, magazine advertisements, point-of-sale displays, promotional calendars and even plush dolls, the popularity of Sundblom’s image of Santa Claus led to an ongoing relationship between the illustrator and company that lasted until his death in 1976.5

Sundblom_MeToo_1936 Sundblom_Santa,PleasePauseHere_1963

“Whilst Sundblom didn’t invent Santa as the jolly, white-haired, rotund old man…he certainly did more than anyone to imprint that image onto our minds,” said Joanna Berry, Lecturer in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School. “[He developed] one of the most enduring brand images ever to have been created.”3

Whether you realized it or not, Haddon Sundblom helped to shape the modern Christmas experience for many of us. Even today, 37 years after Sundblom passed away, the Coca-Cola Company still uses the various illustrations he created in their original form or as references for a new generation of works.1



1 Conversations Staff. “The True History of the Modern Day Santa Claus.” Coca-Cola Journal. Coca-Cola Company. 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

2 Peng, Leif. “Haddon Sundblom and the ‘First Stroke.’” Today’s Inspiration. 14 Dec. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

3 Parker, Sam. “Haddon Sundblom: The Man Who Painted Christmas.” Huffpost Culture United Kingdom. Huffington Post. 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

4 Moore, Clement Clarke. “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” 1822. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

5 “Biography: Haddon Sundblom.” Coca-Cola Company. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

Sundblom, Haddon. Assorted Oil Painting Illustrations. The Coca-Cola Company. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.


About the Author

Lora Davis Stocker is a freelance designer, illustrator and artist based in the Greater Triangle Area of NC. With diverse experience in print and digital environments, Lora enjoys working with clients of all types from small, mom and pop businesses to large global brands.

By Lora Stocker
Published December 13, 2013