Santa hits the road with Coca-Cola Canada

Forget the sleigh. Santa is travelling by Freightliner these days. At least, that’s what he’s driving when on tour with Coca-Cola.

Various versions of the Coca-Cola Christmas truck have visited close to 300 countries over the decades, but this year marks its first Canada-wide tour courtesy of Coca-Cola Canada Bottling. By the time the trip is done, it should pass through close to 100 communities.

Coca-Cola Chrismas truck driver
Mike Matthews is one of about 20 drivers given the chance to pilot the sleigh on wheels. “It’s fantastic,” he said. (Photo: John G. Smith)

Mike Matthews is also revelling in his temporary role as one of the elves, driving this sleigh on wheels around the Greater Toronto Area.

“It’s fantastic,” said the long-time driver for the bottler, as he prepared to unload the mixture of Christmas trees, signage and lighting that add to the festive feel at every stop.

“I just signed up and I was lucky enough to have the seniority to take the gig,” he added. “I wanted to be part of that.”

Santa with Coca-Cola truck
The popular image of Santa Claus can largely be traced to an early Coca-Cola ad campaign. (Photo: Coca-Cola Canada)

The truck’s history

Consider the tractor-trailer an advertising vehicle in every sense of the phrase. But a starring role in commercials has also secured its place in pop culture. (Sorry, Santa. That’ll be the end of the puns in this article.)

The first three trucks, each lit with 30,000 lights, first came to life in a 1995 commercial created by the WB Doner ad agency. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects house established when making Star Wars, was responsible for transforming them into a lengthy convoy. By 1998 one version of the commercial was broadcasting in 100 countries.

The real-world tours began in the U.S. in 2001 before expanding to Europe in 2010 and Australia in 2018. And they are promoted as a goodwill gesture as much as they promote soft drinks. The Canadian tour, for example, partnered with the GenWell Project, described as a Canadian-led “global human connection movement” looking to reinforce the importance of togetherness.

“Now more than ever, Canadians are craving a sense of community and connection,” said Angela Munsterman, transport compliance specialist with Coca-Cola Canada. “This is a time of crisis and isolation happening across Canada.”

This truck, though, brings the smiles.

Unloading Coca-Cola truck
Trees, lights and Christmas cheer are carried from one location to the next. (Photo: John G. Smith)

“It’s the festive feel, it’s the twinkling lights,” Munsterman said, referring to the reason why the truck continues to resonate decades since the first commercial.

About 20 drivers like Matthews are responsible for keeping the Canadian trucks on the move. And there are plenty of staff members at each location to guide families looking for a chance to take a selfie with the big guy. Santa, that is. Not Matthews.

“As you know, Santa’s pretty busy,” Munsterman quipped, referring to the teams spread across Canada. And the role of being a Santa’s helper was popular among the team. “We did have quite a bit of turnout from our drivers,” she said.

Make no mistake about it, though. The goodwill comes with cases of Coke, and plenty of company-specific branding.

In most of the commercials, the trucks roll along to a recurring chant of “holidays are coming”, along with a Coke-hoisting Santa, but in one version the words changed to “Santa packs are coming” to promote some seasonal packaging.

The latter commercial was admittedly a little more on the nose from a promotional standpoint, but Coca-Cola deserves a little leeway. They did give us the modern image of Santa.

The jolly, bearded fellow with the red hat was immortalized in paintings by Haddon Sundblom, on behalf of Coca-Cola, drawing on details in the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. (OK, the poem is officially A Visit from St. Nicholas, but the first line sticks with us firmly as Sundblom’s paintings.)

On the latest truck, though, the picture is framed with LED strip lighting.

In 2018 one of the trucks appeared on the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, promoted as Santa’s official home town. This year, the Canadian tour included a stop in Ajax, Ont., home of a writer who works at a trucking magazine.

The 2021 tour concludes next week.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • On the evening of December 10th I was lucky enough to catch this wonderful sight in person! I was coming home from work (Chatham Ontario) and this truck and trailer was waiting at a stop light heading to Pain Court I believe. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Santa behind the wheel! For a moment I was 5 years old again and I was busting with joy!