Why Does Santa Wear Red?

The red suit has had quite the style evolution.

Santa Claus is one of the most iconic figures in American culture and known throughout the world in various names and forms. The image of a jolly old man wearing a red suit on a sleigh delivering goodies and gifts to all children who evaded the Naughty list seems to have been around forever—but the image of Santa Claus in a red suit is actually a relatively recent development. From settlers bringing the image of Santa Claus to new lands and companies using the image of Father Christmas in commercial advertising, here’s a brief explainer on why Santa’s suit is red. Make sure you know why Christmas is celebrated on December 25.

When did Santa Claus become popular in the United States?

Santa Claus didn’t originate in the United States. When Dutch colonists came to present-day New York in the 1600s, they brought with them the story of legendary figure Sinterklaas, based on Saint Nicholas. Dutch colonists also brought over the idea of someone passing out candy to children on the eve of December 6. However, much needed to be done to transform the colonial image of Santa Claus to the widely recognized figure we know today. But, Christmas wasn’t always celebrated in the colonies—learn why Christmas was outlawed in Massachusetts for part of the 1600s.

Digital composite of Santa eating cookies and milk at Christmasvectorfusionart/Shutterstock

The evolution of Santa’s red suit

The exact story of Santa Claus is still up for debate. One thing we do know for certain is that the current image of Santa Claus does have a red suit. However, Santa’s suit has changed over time and many sources have contributed to the suit’s design. Not sure how to tell your kids Santa isn’t real? Here are some gentle ways to break the news about Santa to your kids.

A popular poem as a source of inspiration

Many literary and commercial works helped transform Santa Claus to the jolly old man wearing the red suit we know and recognize today. According to Britannica, the Troy Sentinel published the popular narrative poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly identified as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) in 1823. The poem, according to Britannica, “… became an enduring part of Christmas tradition, and, because of its wide popularity, both Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas, and the legendary figure Santa Claus were permanently linked with the holiday.”

Gaining recognition as a newspaper cartoon

In 1863, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, known for his American Civil war cartoons, created Santa Claus images wearing the red suit that we’re more likely to recognize today. According to the New York Times, “Nast’s full-page illustration of Santa Claus in 1881 quickly attained status akin to an official portrait, and is still widely reproduced today.” Here are Christmas traditions from around the world that you may want to start using yourself.

coca cola santa claus christmasSergey Kohl/Shutterstock

Santa Claus in commercial advertising

The Coca-Cola Company also had a role to play in the evolution of what the modern Santa Claus looks like. Coca-Cola began advertising for Christmas in the 1920s, with the first Santa ads using “a strict-looking Claus, in the vein of Thomas Nast.” Paintings of Santa Claus in casual settings began to take shape and “in 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke.” In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company released images of a round-bellied, jolly Santa Claus with a white beard by illustrator Haddon Sundblom.

And, as the Coca-Cola website points out, “even though it’s often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.”

Now that you know how Santa’s red suit has changed over time, read these stories about meeting Santa that will fill you with the Christmas spirit.

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Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com