Why Is Santa Claus Fat?

An Internet search for “fat Santa” will yield tens of thousands of images. How did this state of affairs come about? All kinds of Saint Nicholas lore exists, and here at Childhood Obesity News, it is Santa’s waist circumference that grabs our attention. When did he last have a checkup?

Chris Gayomali wrote for The Week,

Early American writer Washington Irving […] was one of the first to balloon Santa’s waistline: In an 1809 book, he switched skinny St. Nicholas and his episcopal robes for a fat elf in traditional Dutch garb. And yes, he looked terrifying.

In the 1890s, American artist Thomas Nast played a big part in solidifying the image of Santa as a portly old man with a bushy white beard. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Coca-Cola Company wanted to convey to the American public an important concept — that consumption of their product did not have to be limited to the hot months. They figured that Santa was the guy for the job.

Another artist, Haddon Sundblom, depicted the roly-poly, dangerously red-cheeked fellow that the corporation promoted for decades. Sundblom was inspired by the famous Clement Clark Moore poem that begins, “‘Twas the night before Christmas,” and the one thing everybody remembers is the rhyme of belly with jelly, because when Santa laughs, a bowlful of jelly is what Santa’s belly shakes like.

Sundblom employed the services of a real model, Lou Prentiss. In advertisements, Santa was often shown playing with or cuddling children. Sometimes he took off his outer jacket, revealing red suspenders. Sundblom continued to contribute new features to the Santa image until 1964.

What were they thinking?

American Santa’s weight is generally estimated to be around 300 pounds, and his state of fitness is deplorable. Journalist Heather Taylor suggests that the well-fed, irrepressibly jolly Santa was just what a Depression-weary American public needed. But somehow, depictions of the Christmas saint as a fat man never caught on in Europe. Nor do European kids set up a plate of sugary cookies that Santa must politely consume. Instead, they give hay or carrots for the reindeer.

Did Coke’s advertising department consider the mixed message that would be sent by the thousands of images of Santa drinking Coke, while rudely shunning the glasses of healthful milk? Did they worry that any kids would put two and two together, and deduce that Santa was so riotously obese because of drinking all that Coke? Apparently not.

Writer Jennifer Graham points out that in the animated version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a certain amount of familial enabling goes on, as Mrs. Claus says, “You’re going to disappoint the children. They expect a fat Santa.”

Let’s wind up the discussion of fat Santa with one feel-bad story and one feel-good story.
Jackie Salo reported on an unfortunate incident that happened three years back, in North Carolina. In a commercial setting, a nine-year-old boy sat on Santa’s lap and was advised by the jolly old elf to eat fewer burgers and fries. A picture was taken, which the child later tore up. It is not clear whether the Santa was fired for fat-shaming, but perhaps he should have been.

Slightly farther back in time, Chuck Lee, a 57-year-old banjo maker and seasonal Santa from Texas (who, incidentally, made his own red suit), decided to turn things around. Journalist Scott Goldstein wrote,

He either needed surgery to address painful gall bladder attacks or he had to make drastic lifestyle changes.

He stopped eating the “bad fats” and most dairy and wheat products and cut back on his sugar intake. He focused more on fruits and vegetables.
Lee also got back into his old martial arts hobby…

Lee lost 50 pounds (and the gall bladder problem), although he reassured the journalist that he still had chubby cheeks and a Santa twinkle in his eyes. Lee told the Santa network about his change, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive and reportedly motivational to many other professional Santas.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “When did Santa Claus get so fat?” TheWeek.com, 12/24/12
Source: “Meet Haddon Sundblom, Creator of Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus,” AdvertisingWeek360.com, 12/19/17
Source: “Santa wasn’t always overweight. Here’s how he got that way,” Deseret.com, 12/25/15
Source: “Santa Claus fat shames 9-year-old boy,” NYPost.com, 12/07/16
Source: “No more fat Santa, says Claus with surprising message,” Scrubbing.in, 12/19/14
Image by T Dale Bagwell/Flickr

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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