Does Santa drink ginger ale?  

We’re back in the 1920s. It is a cold winter’s evening. The sun kisses the horizon and snowflakes are slowing drifting through the cold air outside. A fine layer of freshly fallen snow already coats the scenery in front of your window. Inside, a fire crackles making everything cozy and warm. You just put the tree up and the scent of hot cocoa fills the air. Soon your significant other will put a steaming cup of cocoa into your hand, and to make the sugar rush perfect, you will load up your cup with marshmallows.

Unfortunately, all these cliches of a pre-Christmas evening do not make you happy. No, they make you mad. You hate hot cocoa with a fierce passion, because you sell ice-cold soft drinks for a living. You are the marketing director of a bubble brew empire from Atlanta that makes the quintessential American drink: Coca Cola. 

Coke is a cavity inducing delight that gives you a sugar high as if your soft-drink had cocaine in it. It isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. In the 19th century, an extract from the Coca leave (from which cocaine is produced) was one of the key ingredients. That’s why they called it Coca Cola. John Pemberton, the pharmacist who invented the bubble brew, had an unfortunate morphine addiction. Maybe he hoped a little cocaine in his soft drink would ease his urges. He marketed Coke, pointing out its medicinal properties. He even had a couple of doctors confirm Coke was good for you. Most likely, that was the same outfit that also confirmed the health benefits of snake oil. When Coke was born, church ladies went on a crusade against alcohol, but they didn’t mind a bit of cocaine in your sugar water as long as you stayed away from booze. In the roaring 20s, when you reimagine Santa, all that’s left of the cocaine in your soft drink is the name. It helps your marketing campaigns when people don’t associate your bubble brew with junkies ODʻing on the toilet of your local fast-food joint. 

Thank God what most of the world associates with Coke is America. Coca Cola is a cornerstone of American culture. It’s an icon, a lifestyle, an ambassador of the American way of life. It is the bubbly, brown, liquid form of liberty and opportunity; and separate, but equal, because you live in the 1920s and Jim Crow is in its hay-day. But racism is not what gives you sleepless nights. That the damn Yankees drink steaming hot cocoa in the winter and not ice-cold Coke, that gets you worked up. Your sales numbers take a deep dive into the toilet as soon as Americans begin their seasonal love affair with a miss from Switzerland. This year, your boss insisted something must be done. Coke can’t just be America’s favorite drink when the sun shines. No matter the weather, when Americans are thirsty, Coke should pop into their minds. He looked at you with steely eyes and told you to make that happen; Coke must be an indispensable part of the winter wonderland, or you’re fired.

As you ponder your future with growing frustration, it makes ping and a cartoon lightbulb appears over your head. You just had a ground-shaking idea. Why reinvent the wheel when you can steal one? Your sugar water is not the only soda on the market. There is also White Rock. They make selzer water and ginger-ale. They had launched an ad campaign that fought the American desire for hot cocoa in the winter with Saint Nicholas. A guy with a white beard dressed in red who drank ginger-ale. Let’s take that guy, shorten his name, make him super jolly and, of course, he doesn’t drink ginger-ale. Who in his right mind drinks a summer drink like ginger-ale in the winter? Santa drinks the quintessential all-American all-year drink, Coca Cola! And so is born the greatest marketing success this planet has ever seen. 

Santa, as the Atlanta bubble empire shortened the name of Saint Nicholas, is allegedly responsible for delivering toys to the nice kids in the night before Christmas. There is some truth to that. The North American Air defense command, NORAD, tracks Santa’s way around the world. And I am sure they wouldn’t take their radar eyes off of the Russians, or the Chinese, green space aliens or whoever seeks to intrude into our airspace if the toy laden flying sled wasn’t really zooming around the world.

But Santa, or Saint Nick, didn’t start his career in a toy factory at the north pool. Today we understand Santa as the Christ free saint of stuff, but the original Saint Nicholas was a Christian Bishop. 

He was born on March 15 in 270 AD, and he died on December 6, in 343 AD. Nobody knows if these dates are accurate. What we know about early saints comes from the writings of so-called hagiographers. That is Greek coming from hagios, which means holy, and graphia, which means writing, together Holy Writing. A hagiography is a biography of a saint or a church leader. Ancient writers were not primarily concerned with stating facts, as we are. They wanted to find out what a saint’s exploits could teach us about God.

Modern fact obsession emerged after the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Science made leaps forward and humans had more or less reliable facts about the physical nature of the universe. That led to the modern assumption that anything which is not a hard fact is not worth knowing. Ancient religious texts might lack hard facts, but their main purpose is to say something about the meaning of life. 2nd century theologian Origen of Alexandria wrote religious texts can be contradictory or outright wrong as far as the facts are concerned, but they still hold a spiritual truth that is contained within material falsehood. His words, written in the second century. Most churches share his opinion.

St. Nicholas, Jaroslav Čermákn

We are relatively certain that Saint Nicholas was a Greek from the city of Myra in Asia Minor, where the city of Demre is in modern Turkey. The earliest written accounts of his adventures emerged centuries after his death. One of the most famous stories told is that of the poor man who had three daughters. He was too poor to give them a dowry. A dowry is an amount of money that the bride brings into a marriage. If you had no dowry, no one would marry you. An unmarried woman couldn’t exist well in the ancient world. Women had to always be carefully controlled by a man. First by her father, then by her husband, and if her husband died, her son. If she had no son, husband or father, she was an outcast. The three daughters of the poor man had only one prospect: prostitution. Saint Nicholas wanted to save them from that fate. One night, the saint snuck up to the poor man’s house. Hidden by the velvet darkness, he threw a bag of gold through the window and then he ran away. Allegedly, the father never found out who tossed a fortune into his lap. He used the treasure to provide a dowry for his three daughters. 

The saint is also famous for secretly putting coins into the shoes of poor children. One day he calmed a storm, another day he saved soldiers from being unjustly executed. One really good day, he resurrected three children who were slaughtered by a butcher. The murderous meat merchant had preserved them in brine and wanted to sell them as pickled pork during a famine. 

Pope Eugene the 4th made him an official saint in 1446. Many saints find a place of honor in the hearts of the faithful, but what people like most about Saint Nicholas is his secret gift giving. Over time, a tradition developed, especially in the low countries and in the German-speaking world, that on the day the saint died, on December 6th, secret gifts are given, especially to children. In the morning, parents tell their kids the saint came by at night and snuck sweets and toys into their shoes. 

It was a well-loved tradition among the people until Martin Luther burst onto the scene. In 1517, the German monk kicked off the Reformation. He slaughtered a lot of Holy Cows and he also messed with Saint Nicholas Day.

Eugene IV, Cristofano dell’Altissimo

He liked the gift giving. But as a Protestant, he didn’t like saints. Protestants believe there is no necessity for either priests or saints to intercede for someone with God. God hears all prayers, God knows all, sees all and God loves all. For Protestants, saints are dead and rest in the embrace of God. They have no priests, but pastors, resident theologians who went to seminary and who have no greater power to invoke the Holy Spirit than anyone else. For that reason, celebrating a saint needed to go away in Luther country. Luther changed the gift giving to Christmas, December 24th, Jesus’ birthday. He said the Christ child would bring the presents, not some Roman Catholic saint. He was persistent, loud, and most likely obnoxious. Over time, everybody accepted the idea to move gift giving to Christmas, even Roman Catholics. 

Luther was largely successful in swapping Saint Nicholas for the Christ child as the gift bringer. However, Saint Nicholas didn’t go away completely. Some gift giving is still happening on December 6th, especially in Germany, Switzerland and in the Netherlands. In the evening people put their shoes in front of their doors. In the night, someone, nobody knows who, fills them with nuts and sweets, and little toys. The toys are mostly for children. The Christ child brings the substantial stuff on Christmas, but no matter what good old Martin Luther preaches, a little something of St. Nicholas’ day escaped his reforms. 

There are many different folk traditions that come together in the figure of Santa, Saint Nick, Sinter-class, father Christmas, or however you call the secret gift giver. Its origins in Europe reach back to pre-Christian Yule tide celebrations. Those traditions mingle with stories about the Greek Saint Nicholas. The mostly secular Christmas icon comes into a form we would recognize in the 18th and 19th century. Nick gets more and more portly, and jolly, acquires the white beard and the red coat, sleigh, reindeer, toy factory on the north pole, the whole enchilada. He gets also an assistant and a list. That’s the infamous naughty list. If you’re a naughty child, you don’t get any presents, but a piece of coal or the assistant whacks you with a stick he carries. So better be nice. In the 1920s the Atlanta bubble water consortium lit the afterburner on the tradition. Santa took off like a rocket. When his sled zooms around the globe, many people forget that Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. But no one escapes Santa. Even in non-Christian countries like Japan, Santa is everywhere. If you want to be different this holiday season and don’t fear Atlanta’s naughty list, then put some White Rock Ginger-ale under the tree. They are still doing business as a bargain brand. Coca Cola did not invent Santa, but the success of their marketing campaign proves you don’t have to be the first to create something truly iconic. Cheers!


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Olaf Baumann

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