The real Nicholas of history was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE on December 6th. Nicholas was ultimately named a saint in the 19th century
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy, where Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who filled children’s stockings with gifts. Following this example, Nicholas cult members developed a tradition of giving each other gifts during an annual pageant on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death.
The Nicholas cult spread north where it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans, who worshipped a pantheon of deities led by Woden, their chief god. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th rather than December 6th.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous for his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, “Santa Claus.”
Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary in New York, read Knickerbocker History and in 1822 published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…”
Moore was the first to portray Santa with eight reindeer, descending down chimneys to leave gifts. The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast all but completed the modern picture of Santa Claus, drawing more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly from 1862 to 1886. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be a bright Coca Cola red.
And so, Santa was born; a blend of Christian crusader, pagan god, and commercial idol.