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Like Swedes, Americans have a very definite idea of their Santa. He is "a jolly, white bearded, pot-bellied old chap with cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry". Add to that big boots, a broad buckled belt and a coke and you've got the typical American Santa as he has appeared ever since Haddon Sundblom, a SwedishAmerican artist first painted him in 1931.

Haddon used retired salesman Lou Prentice as his model for Santa Claus as he had the right build and "the wrinkles in his face all seemed to be happy wrinkles which were so evident when he smiled or laughed". When Lou passed away someone suggested Haddon use himself as a model because by then his broad Nordic face also had the same kind of happy wrinkles.

It was the early Dutch settlers who brought the Sinterklaas or St Nicholas concept to America. The white beard and the gifts emanate from Saint Nicholas's origins as a bishop in Asia Minor in 300 AD. The chimney and the short pipe are Dutch. Add to that the elfin character of Santa as described by Clement Moore in his poem "Twas the Night before Christmas" and you get the version of Santa Claus that illustrator Thomas Nast made popular in 1850. Walt Disney made Santa more human in his 1932 workshop film but it was Haddon Sundblom who finally transferred Santa into a real flesh-and-blood person.

To Sundblom, Santa Claus is a bighearted guy who sets out on his Christmas Eve journey with a "look of spiritual glow". He could be your granddady and is not without human foibles. He wouldn't hesitate, for example, to raid your icebox for a midnight snack and he'd likely stuff an extra orange or two into your stocking if you left him a bottle of Coke.

The same "humanizing" of the Swedish Santa took place when artist Jenny Nystr6m used her father as a model for her tomte in 1881 and forever transformed him into the endearing jultomte we now know.

Haddon Sundblom was a successful commercial artist in 1931 when the Coca-Cola company asked him to create a holiday ad for Coca-Cola. That ad featured Sundblom's version of Santa Claus, and was the beginning of a holiday tradition that endeared him to generations of Americans.

Born in 1899, Sundblom grew up in Chicago, the youngest of nine children in a Swedish-American family with roots in Åland. In his teens, Haddon worked for Swedish construction companies to earn money for art classes that he attended at night.. Later on he worked as an apprentice with the Charles Evereth Johnson Studio. He opened his own studio in the mid-1920s and began producing advertising for the Coca-Cola company through the D'Arcy Advertising agency.

Sundblom's first Santa Claus appeared in an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931. After this Sundblom developed new scenarios for Coke and Santa for the next thirty-five years. He also created the "Sprite" cartoon figure used in Coca Cola ads in the 1940s and 1950s, and his 1946 "Yes Girl" poster for Coke remains a milestone of poster design. In all, Sundblom created well over 150 pieces of advertising art for the Coca-Cola company that were used on calendars, posters and billboards as well as for popular magazines. In 1972, Haddon even painted the cover of the December issue of Playboy, which featured a young woman in Santa Claus attire holding a coke-like symbol Sundblom also developed lasting advertising images as the "Quaker Man" that still adorns the packaging of Quaker Oats today and the Aunt Jemima that you can still see on syrup bottles.

Haddon Sundblom was married to Violet who was the sister of Warner Sallman (Sällman from Åland) who painted the most reproduced picture of Jesus Christ ever. The Sundbloms had four daughters and 14 grandchildren who all sat models for Haddon's advertising art paintings.
Sundblom died in 1976 but his work lives each holiday season through his enduring images of Santa Claus. Haddon Sundblom painted 40 paintings of Santas for Coca-Cola. Each work is a full scale oil-painting employing the same techniques as Rembrandt and Anders Zorn. This year 25 of these paintings are being shown at the NK department store in Stockholm. Last Christmas they visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Valued at about $25 000 each, they have been shown all over the United States and in Japan. The paintings that Haddon himself considered to be convenient art shine in all, their greatness today.

Haddon Sundblom was inducted into the Illustrators' Hall of Fame in 1987 and was always held in very high regard by the profession. He channeled many budding artists through his studio, that at times employed as many as 30 illustrators. The "Sundblom Circle" of artists all did extremely well even during the Depression.

In his later years, when photography edged out paintings as illustrations, Haddon Sundblom turned to painting oil portraits but he never considered himself a "gallery artist".

As for what he thought of Coke, he is reported to have said: "Nope, I never could stand the stuff”.

© and all rights reserved from Swedish Press February 1990