He may be imaginary, but Santa Claus is very real to many Americans. And this year, he became real enough to experience a bit of an identity crisis.
The debate over who Santa really is — or who he should be — began in earnest early this month, when Aisha Harris, writing for Slate, suggested we abandon the current visage and replace it with a penguin to "spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood."
Conservative media shot back. "For all the kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa," Megyn Kelly told Fox viewers. Then politicians jumped in. "Maybe, you know, he's Jewish," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., joked on NPR's Morning Edition. In the middle of all this, alternative-energy companies began pushing for a slim Santa in a green coat who rejects big consumer brands in favor of gifts that give back.
But Santas who deviate from the norm already exist. In parts of the country with large minority populations, the Santas adorning Christmas cards and greeting children at the mall are not white, "illustrating that in an increasingly diverse United States, Santa takes on whatever color you imagine him to be," the Associated Press wrote on Friday.
Still, even a change in coat color, just like a change in ethnicity or species, will immediately see push-back. A red coat, a blushing white face — "these are very very traditional, iconic images," says Jenna Allard, director of operations at Pear Energy, which is promoting a green-coat Claus through holiday sales on wind or solar electricity for households. "Occasionally, we kind of need to step back and think about the meanings behind them and what we want to save and what we don't."
So who is that man from the North Pole? The 21st-century Santa Claus is a blend of Sinterklaas, a cape-wearing, staff-toting Dutch saint; Father Christmas, a cheerful, long-bearded gentleman from British folklore; and St. Nicholas, a generous Greek bishop from modern-day Turkey once persecuted for his Christian beliefs.
However, Santa as most Americans know him — with rosy cheeks, a hearty ho-ho, and big belly — comes from a successful marketing campaign barely a century old.
In the 1920s, the Coca-Cola Co. launched a series of shopping ads during Christmastime featuring Santa. He looked the way cartoonist Thomas Nast drew him for Harper's Weekly in 1862: a small, elf-like figure with a strict facial expression.
In 1931, ad executives working with Coke wanted the campaign "to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic," according to the soda company's website. The illustrator commissioned for the job, Haddon Sundblom, used a friend, a retired salesman, as a live model, and drew inspiration from Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" to create the "warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa" we see most often today.
"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," reads a history of the campaign.
The modern-day image of Santa Claus predates the people who have postulated his "true" identity this year. The war between those who say we should rewrite history to make it reflect modern sensibilities and those who want to leave it untouched is far from over. There seems to be only one real winner, though, and that's Coke.