Who first decided to decorate a plane for the holidays? Maybe a WWII bomber decided to indulge in some festive-themed nose art. Or perhaps this colorful Christmas tradition began much earlier? 

But one thing is certain. By the early 1990s commercial airlines across the globe began to capitalize on the idea. Not only is it important to make your aircraft look as attractive as possible, but liveries are also a great way for airlines to establish brand identification. Many airlines have been doing this for decades and have created some beautiful-looking aircraft as a result 

The winter holidays, with a rise in passenger traffic and general festive mood, is the perfect time for airlines to pull out all the stops.  

The rise: 1990s  

Finland’s flag carrier Finnair could well have been among the first airlines to do just that. According to the company’s website, the airline’s first aircraft to be adorned with a giant painting of Santa Claus and his sleigh took to the skies in 1984. It was a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, which Finnair decorated to mark the announcement that it had become ‘the official airline of Santa Claus’ in 1983.  

By 1995, several other airlines also decided to deck their aircraft with festive livery. Sometime before 1993, Compass Airlines, a short-lived Australian carrier, painted a Santa hat on one of its MD-80 airliners. Alas, such a stunt failed to save the airline from bankruptcy. Then in 1994, British Airways adorned a Boeing 737 with a livery with ‘Happy Christmas’ emblazoned on one side and ‘Merry Christmas’ on the other. Both sides also featured colorful designs inspired by children’s drawings. Lastly, in 1995, Ryanair embraced the festive trend and painted a Santa had and beard on the nose of a 737.  

Some of these airlines continued with the festive fun. But others did not. Ryanair tried to make it into a tradition. In 1997, the carrier even wrapped a 737 with a bow that said ‘Merry Christmas’, and adorned its tail with a drawing of Santa rather than the airline’s usual logo. In 1998, the airline decided to wrap a big red scarf around the neck of another 737.  

These were all short-lived efforts, with just a small part of an aircraft being repainted, and the change only lasting one season before being removed.  

But Finnair, with its ‘official’ status as one of Kris Kringle’s helpers, continued with the idea and has flown at least one of the Santa-themed planes year-round. The first plane to be used was the DC-9, then, sometime in the 1990s, a giant MD-11 received the same festive treatment. The DC-9 was retired in 2000 with the MD-11 following in 2010, and the honor of displaying the airline’s affiliation with the North Pole’s only permanent resident went to other aircraft. 

Right before 2001, an Air Ontario De Havilland Canada Dash 8 was painted to resemble a reindeer. It was the only American aircraft to receive the Christmas livery treatment. In 2005, Ryanair decided to wave goodbye to its Christmas tradition, and went out with a bang. This time, the carrier painted a rather unlucky Santa Claus on the nose of a 737-800, as if poor Saint Nick had been hit by a speeding plane.  

Ryanair’s ‘Santa strike’ turned out to be prophetic. The airline never returned to decorating its airplanes for the holidays, and its marketing strategy made a significant shift from wholesome content to the Ryanair we know today. 

The 2010s and the resurgence 

In 2009, Thomson Airways, a British charter airline now known as TUI, decided to add a pair of reindeer antlers and a big red ‘Merry Christmas’ to its Boeing 757. This led to a brief resurgence in Christmas liveries during the 2010s. 

Air Berlin (AB1) was at the forefront of this trend. The airline launched its ‘Flying home for Christmas’ campaign in 2012, and created a special livery to mark the occasion. This campaign continued each year until the airline’s eventual demise in 2015. In 2015, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) launched its own festive livery, which consisted of a single ‘Merry Christmas’ written across the fuselage and was a far more modest offering than Thomson Airways.  

Airberlin Boeing 737 Christmas livery
Airberlin's "Flying home for Christmas" livery, 2014 edition (Image: Anna Zvereva / Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, Finnair’s Christmas-themed DC-9 was succeeded by an Airbus A320 decorated with an image of a reindeer and a ‘Happy holidays’ sign on its side. By 2014, one of Finnair’s A321s received Santa’s seal on its fuselage, further highlighting the carrier’s ‘official’ status, while the reindeer and the congratulation appeared on several other planes, including a brand-new Airbus A350. 

By this time, Finnair was the only airline to have continued with its festive livery campaign and it had been several years since any other carrier had rolled-out a Christmas livery. 

The disappearance was not even a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international travel. Finnair chose not to paint its aircraft in preparation for the 2019-2020 season before thoughts had even turned to lockdowns and grounded planes.  

So, why did the airline decide to do away with Christmas liveries? It is hard to tell. 

Well, nothing is constant except change, right? There is no one reason for this, we simply kept a break from the tradition,” Finnair spokesperson told AeroTime 

Finnair’s move is as mysterious as the disappearance of the trend for Christmas liveries. Maybe airlines began to realize that repainting aircraft for a few weeks each year does not pay off? Or perhaps it simply fell out of fashion.  

However, if it is the latter, then we still have hope of a comeback.  

Currently, as the 100th anniversary year is approaching, our focus is there. But with Santa Claus’ importance to us, we will always keep Santa-themed special liveries in our back pocket of plans,” Finnair’s spokesperson explained.  

Perhaps other airlines also have this outlook?  

Finnair Airbus A321 Christmas livery
The last rendition of Finnair's Christmas livery, photographed in 2018 (Image: Anna Zvereva / Wikipedia)