At right is the cover of The Night Before Christmas as illustrated by W. W. Denslow in 1902. This Santa is wearing a red hat, but no red suit. As in the interior illustrations, Denlow’s Santa dresses primarily in green and brown.
It took a while for Santa’s red suit to become an immutable part of his image. Thomas Nast’s drawings of Santa for Harper’s Weekly from 1863 on popularized the character. In these engravings Santa always wore a fur suit, usually with a wide belt, short fur boots, and a fur hat trimmed with holly.
In 1886 the publishing firm McLaughlin Bros., who pioneered the use of color printing in children’s books, hired Nast to adapt his Santa art for a new book, Santa Claus and His Works. In The Santa Claus Book, E. Willis Jones writes:
This posed a problem for the artist, because he had always thought of the Santas he drew in black ink as wearing a tannish fur suit, which certainly would not contribute to colorful illustrations. The simple solution was to make Santa’s suit in a bright red, and to add a little contrast he trimmed it with white ermine fur.Nast’s first red-suited Santa was still a way from our modern image. The character is short, and wears fur, not woven cloth; his garment’s cut is like a set of pajamas with feet, and the ermine trim is slight, running around his waist in place of a belt.
In 1890 the McLaughlins published Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, which put Santa in buckled shoes and a wide belt. But his ermine piping went down the front of his fur coat only. And the firm issued some copies of The Night Before Christmas showing Santa’s suit as green.
Maxfield Parrish’s 1896 portrait of Santa shows two rows of big buttons on his chest. Mary Cowles Clark’s illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) dress Claus alternately in green and red.
Thus, when Denslow drew this Santa, the character hadn’t become completely standardized. In December 1904 his Scarecrow and the Tinman comics page showed the Tinman dressing up as Santa in a red coat—with bristly brown trim.
After World War 1, the standard image of Santa settled down, with magazine cover artists showing him in a red coat with lots of white fur trim—a choice largely determined by how those magazines were printed in black and red on white paper. The Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentlemen commissioned holiday images from Norman Rockwell (in 1920 and 1921, for example) and N. C. Wyeth (“Old Kris” in 1925) under those technical restrictions. And thus we stopped seeing Santa in green.