Santa Claus wears red and white because the legend comes from the Dutch folk tale of Sinterklaas, who had a white beard and wore a red bishop's miter. Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the character for more than 30 years, finally adopting the red outfit from the folk tale.
Sinterklaas was based on the real life St. Nicholas, who gave money to the poor and protected children. He became the most popular saint in Europe, and Dec. 6 was his celebration day. During the Protestant Reformation, many Christian traditions and saints were pushed away; however, the Dutch continued to keep the Sinterklaas tradition alive and eventually brought it to America, where the character sometimes resembled an elf.
The New York City Saint Nicholas Society was looking for a way to turn Dec. 25 into a family holiday and end the traditional drunken debauchery associated with the day. Therefore, they turned to the legend of Sinterklaas for inspiration. After mixing the story with other European legends, such as Krampus, the character began appearing less as an elf and more as a grandfather-type figure.
The Coca-Cola company had an influential hand in establishing the final look of the character by using illustrations made by artist Haddon Sundblom for their advertising campaigns in the mid-20th century.