Christmas in July rarely gets as much attention as its December counterpart. But this year, more than 800 jolly Santas and Mrs. Clauses celebrated in style in Branson, Mo., at Discover Santa 2016.

The largest-ever Santa convention brought together a crowd of St. Nicks from all over the country to share tricks of the trade and celebrate the importance of year-round Santa spirit.

With rosy complexions and long white beards galore, Christmas cheer was abundant.

Sunblom’s Santa

But Santa was not always so jolly. In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to shape Santa’s image as one of wholesome warmth. Until then, Santa had appeared a bit gaunter and sterner.

Sundblom said of Coca-Cola’s reconceived Santa, “I think of him as a roly-poly, jovial type, and that’s the way I’ve painted him. Our Santa Claus is not the philosopher type with a benign expression that I’ve seen sometimes. He’s happier and more human.”

Humanity embraced this Santa’s newfound humanity. Coca-Cola’s December 1947 internal Red Barrel Magazine featured Santa surrounded by toys and a note: “This familiar figure with an established artistic treatment is as much a national symbol as the bottle of Coca-Cola he holds in his hand. Both have an affectionate place in the hearts and minds of a world open-minded to sentiment.”

Coca-Cola’s Santa was no longer just an advertising technique. He was Santa. And with his crinkled eyes and ruddy cheeks, he embodied the joyous holiday spirit.

So significant was this reimagined symbol of Christmas that the Discover Santa convention concluded by celebrating the induction of Sundblom and Coca-Cola into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. Accepting the honour, Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan credited Sundblom’s vision and “the sheer beauty of his Santa Claus” (alongside Coca-Cola’s significant advertising investment) with creating what has become the “modern-day image of Santa Claus.”

The Power of the Suit

When a Santa puts on his first red suit, he's hooked. Young people's wonder at seeing a mystical figure of their dreams gives Santas a rush that comes from little else. The suit signals that Santa is on the clock, and with that comes a promise – this Santa is the Santa and will behave with the expected cheer.

Santa Sam Simmons explains that when in his suit, “I cannot be a sad Santa, I cannot be a tired Santa. I always have to be a happy Santa and be on the mark.”

He continues, “Every minute that we wear these suits, we are trying so hard to make a child know that we are Santa, because there is Santa in all of us. Santa is the excitement, and the love, and the anticipation of something wonderful that’s going to happen.”

Every Santa can recall a story of that “something wonderful.” Santa Jim McGrath remembers meeting a child who strongly disliked physical contact – even from those in his family. Yet, upon seeing Santa, the child ran to embrace him. His mother cried, seeing her child respond to another so warmly.

“It wasn’t me.” Santa Jim believes. “I didn’t have some sparkle in my eye that I constantly practiced in the mirror. It was that power of the suit.”

It was more than a suit. It was a spirit.

Changing Clothes

Though the red suit clearly signals Santa is at work, the Coca-Cola Santa did not define Santa by garments. Instead, it crafted a persona that remains just as recognizably cheery and undeniably Santa-esque, whichever look Santa sports.

“I can be walking through the grocery store and little ones will come up to me,” Santa Greg Winters says. “I may be in bib overalls, I may be in a pair of blue jeans, but they’ll know who I am and the fact that I can make them smile.”

Given children’s uncanny knack for knowing a Santa when they see one, Santa Paul Agrusti makes sure that he always leaves his home with style. “Everything I wear, not just at the convention, has to be what Santa would wear in public," he said. With a wardrobe of one-of-a-kind homemade Hawaiian shirts and Coca-Cola patterned vests, Santa Paul looks as though he’s just making some routine visits before heading back to the North Pole.

Considering the varied outfits of his fellow Santas, Santa Jim McGrath says, “Almost every single one is different or unique in some way. That’s a lot of what Americans are. We are one, but we are different. That might be a good thing for us to remember as a country.”

When he envisioned the Coca-Cola Santa, Sundblom did more than just unite disparate notions of Saint Nicholas. He harnessed a jolly spirit with the potential to unite people.

And that's the spirit of Christmas in July.

Find out more about the Haddon Sundblom Santa