The soda pop Santa

Minneapolis’ Swedish American Institute offers insight into the history of Coca-Cola’s classic character

The soda pop Santa

by Andrew Penkalski

What: Santa Claus, Coca-Cola & Swedish Design

When: November 6 through January 16

Where: The American Swedish Institute


As the rotting jack-o-lanterns continue to collapse into themselves on Minneapolis front porches during the weeks before Thanksgiving, it can be easy to get all too wrapped up in the final macabre death rattles of sunshine after 5 p.m. or foliage of any color on any tree. If only everyone could just remember that the nation sits on the cusp of a wonderful time of sugary Americana âÄî the Christmas season.

While it may be a couple more weeks until those polar bear-laden cola cans fill shelves, MinneapolisâÄô American Swedish Institute will be ushering in the season early with their âÄúSanta Claus, Coca-Cola and Swedish DesignâÄù exhibition.

The exhibit, which will be running through Jan. 16, examines the 1920s illustrative work of Haddon Sundblom, the Swedish American artist behind the iconic pop Santa, an image that largely would define the commercial identity of the yuletide figure as whole.

âÄúThese images really became an icon, not only for Coca-Cola but for Americans, as to what Santa looked like âÄî a jolly character, the red suit, always happy and never threatening,âÄù American Swedish Institute curator Curt Pederson said.

The institute was able to secure a substantial amount of collection in collaboration directly with Coca-ColaâÄôs Atlanta-based archives. Moreover, a considerable amount of print material has been loaned through various threads of Coca-Cola collector associations. However, Pederson maintains that this is not an attempt to overdose the viewer with memorabilia.

âÄúThis is not going to be a show of hundreds upon hundreds of pieces,âÄù Pederson said. âÄúThey were chosen to follow a bit of a timeline.âÄù

Surely, that warm feeling of tradition that comes with every ice-cold seasonally packaged Coke will only be amplified within the Swedish American InstituteâÄôs collection. Although SundblomâÄôs work ultimately will appeal due to its cultural resonance, the illustrations also exist as a stunning testament to the artisanship at work within early 20th-century advertising.

âÄúThey were painted with the industry in mind, so thereâÄôs good color, good contrast,âÄù Pederson said. âÄúThey are certainly qualified as quality art even though they were commissioned [by Coca-Cola].âÄù

Moreover, SundblomâÄôs collection irrevocably reiterates the immense Nordic influence at work within the Santa Claus character. Nordic lore carried a myth of creatures referred to as tomte, small beings that lived in the rafters of homes. In the winter, they would be appeased with a bowl of porridge in order to secure good luck for the coming year.

âÄúThere are Swedish illustrations of these tomte characters,âÄù Pederson said. âÄúThey are usually wearing a red felt hat. That was very likely one inspiration for Hadon Sundblom for the Santa Claus figure.âÄù

Whether the drawing is historical design, Nordic tradition or simply holiday nostalgia, the American Swedish Institutes gallery of Sundblom pieces will offer many a more insightful holiday experience than the common Christmas pageant.