Santa Claus, as we know him today, seems to combine many different, older figures. In Northern Europe, a bearded, old man existed since ancient times. He prepared people to the upcoming, long winter period with his switch and nuts. The switch is a fertility symbol, the nuts are representing rich and durable food. He was living in Lapland, dressed in a long brown coat with hood and rode on a reindeer sled. The story of this figure contains also elements of the Norse gods Odin and Balder, which in turn are parallel to Shouxing, the Chinese God of longevity, and to Russian father frost.
The biggest influence on todays figure of Santa Claus is however Saint Nicholas of Myra. He was a bishop, living in the 4th century, and many characteristics of this real personality have been integrated into the symbolic figure of Santa Claus, yet they are not to be equated with each other. In many ways, Santa Claus is a Protestant version of Saint Nicholas, who was celebrated by the Catholic Church at the beginning of the advent season (December 6) and who was popular in the middle ages for bringing gifts to the children. The name of the English and American Santa Claus still remember on the Saint, as well as his appearance, with the red robe, his long beard and the bishop’s crook.
His popularity took him across America and around the world. Nowadays, Santa Claus is basically “undenominational” and no religious figure anymore. He became more kind of a commercial trade character instead. But he was not invented by Coca-Cola, as often claimed!
Santa Claus is in writing since 1820. In 1823 Clement Clarke Moore wrote his well-known poem “Twas the night before Christmas” (A visit from St. Nicholas). The included, visual description (as a plump, jolly elf with a round little belly, dressed all in fur, with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, a nose like a cherry, a long white beard and a pipe), shaped the image of Santa Claus fundamental.
Good one hundred years later, in 1931 the commercial artist Haddon Sundblom, son of Scandinavian immigrants, made his first drawings for a Coca-Cola advertising, becoming a huge success. Until 1964, he drew at least one Santa Claus a year for the company and shaped the idea of “modern” Santa Claus sustainably. Reindeer Rudolph was invented later, in 1939 for an American department store.