I've developed an interest in the origins of Santa Claus, he's an interesting hodge podge. We begin with Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th Century Greek Christian Bishop who lived in an area that has since become Turkey. He had a reputation for being generous to the poor, in one famous instance he provided money to three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian so that they wouldn't have to become prostitutes.
Somewhere along the lines, Saint Nicholas' memory was fused with a mythological character - Odin. Aside from the fact they both had beards, I'm not sure what they had in common or how they got mixed-up. Odin was one of the major Gods amongst the Germanic people prior to their Christianization. According to myth, Odin rode an eight-legged horse called Slepinir who could leap great distances. Children of the time would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for Slepnir to eat. Odin would reward the childrens' kindness by replacing Slepnir's food with gifts or sweets. Sound familiar? Think "chimney" and "gets around with a flying/ jumping animal".
The figure of Father Christmas (though not Santa Claus - Father Christmas had a different name and was too slim) had hit the scene by the 16th Century, but Puritan groups of the time banned the holiday on account of it being either Pagan or Roman Catholic (which I guess it was). Following the restoration of the monarchy and the Puritans losing their power in England, Father Christmas was back! This is a picture from The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.
In Nordic countries, the original bringer of gifts at Christmas was the Yule Goat. Here you can see the goat teaming up with a delightfully sinister-looking proto-Santa...
Incidentally, seeing him on a goat reminds me of how similar the name "Santa" is to the name "Satan". But I digress.
There is also another guy we have to bring into the mix - a Dutch fellow called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, he's entirely distinct from Santa Claus. However, they look alike, and their names are so similar, there's clearly something fishy going on. In the Netherlands, they call Santa de Kerstman (the Christmasman). Apparently, half of the Dutch households have Sinterklaas visit them on the 5th December, and the other half are visited by Santa on the 25th. Chaos.
How the Dutch name, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus was probably by the same process by which the name Christ-Kindl (Christ-child) became Kris Kringle (another name for Santa). Some english speaking schmuk probably forgot the original name and told everyone the wrong thing and that caught on.
By the late 1800s, St Nicholas, Odin, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas and the goat all fused into one guy, and the American caricaturist Thomas Nast redesigned him as fat and jolly. There was controversy over whether he's based in the North Pole or Lapland, a debate which still rages today. Who knows. At any rate, it was Nast who gave Santa the Red and White look. Although Santa's image was further popularised by Coca-Cola's advertising campaigns of the 1930s, they didn't assign his colours - contrary to popular belief. Coca-Cola also weren't the first soft drink to co-opt Santa, White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915.
Finally, Rev. Paul Nedergaard, a clergyman in Copenhagen, attracted controversy in 1958 when he declared Santa to be a "Pagan Goblin". I'm sure Saint Nicholas would be delighted to know that his memory has been morphed into a fat, cheerful goblin that sneaks down chimneys and promotes beverages.