Santa Claus, as understood in the Western world, is an amalgam of dozens of tales, legends, and traditions from Europe and the surrounding regions. The strongest influence of all, however, is the very real figure of the Christian bishop of Saint Nicholas, from 4th century Greece.
Nicholas was not a fat man nor did he deliver on Christmas Eve (although he was very generous and known for helping the poor, most famously giving marriage dowries to the three daughters of an impoverished Christian to save them from a life of prostitution). The Feast of St. Nicholas was traditionally celebrated on the 6th of December, and well into the 1
Not, that is, until December of 1809, when Washington Irving published a satirical work of fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York which featured a St. Nicholas who was not a saintly, slender bishop, but an elfin and mischievous dutchman with a pipe who came down to chimneys to deliver gifts. St Nicholas took over a life of its own.
By the 1820s, the idea of St. Nicholas was firmly rooted in the American consciousness. 1821 poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight The Children's Friend: A New-Year's Present , to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve ), that's a lot of things about Santa we now took for granted: that he rewards the good and punishes the bad, gifts were wholesome toys like dolls and balls, and he
Shortly after that in 1823, another poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which was published and described by Santa:
He was dressed all in fur, from
A bundle of toys had been on his back,
If that sounds a wee bit familiar, you (and millions of others) know it today as one of t he most beloved Christmas Eve stories of all time: " The Night Before Christmas ". Coca-Cola advertising-esque red velvet wearing, rosy cheeked. From the 1820s forward, St. Nicholas was formed and reformed through stories and lore, and toward the end of the 19th century, by advertising and commercialism, until he had morphed into the iconic Coca-Cola advertising-esque red velvet wearing, rosy cheeked , white-bearded benefactor we know and love.
Image by Thomas Nast (1860); Santa in a red fur-trimmed suit.