The Santa Claus story is 18 centuries old.
It all started with a Norse god Odin the Wanderer, an old man with a long white beard, holding a staff and wearing long robes and wide trimmed hat. He had 5 animal companions – two ravens and two wolves. But his favorite was an 8-legged horse which rode so fast it could fly.
Many centuries later there was a boy named Nicolaus who was born in Anatolia (modern Turkey), a Greek colony under Roman rule. Nicolaus became very pious and a devoted Christian at an early age. At the time the Roman emperors weren’t exactly Christian-friendly, but gradually became more tolerant and Nicolaus became a priest and later a bishop. Along the way he also managed to perform certain miracles, such as resurrecting dead sailors, preventing virgins from becoming harlots and saving repentant thieves from execution.
After his death the boy from Anatolia became Saint Nicolas the “Gift Giver” – the patron saint of sailors, merchants, thieves, brewers, students and most importantly, children. He is one of the few saints recognized by most branches of Christianity – Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans, to name a few.
Many centuries later the Dutch had their own name for Saint Nicolas – “Sinterclass”. Phonetic derivation of this name eventually became “Santa Claus” in English-speaking countries. Some time later, a British writer wrote a poem for children about Saint Nicolas. The bishop was replaced by a portly man with a big white beard. And Odin’s 8-legged horse became a sleigh with 8 reindeers (as in “rein-deer”).
Nicolaus died on December 6. For many centuries countries in Europe have celebrated on this day, with parents giving presents to children and those in need. During Christianization the images of Nicolaus, Norse god Odin and pagan midwinter holiday Yule got all mixed up and eventually the gift-giving day was moved to 25th of December, the Christmas morning.
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer has appeared only in 1939, after a booklet published by the now defunct Montgomery Ward company.
Other cultures adopted similar characters. In Russia, there’s “Ded Moroz”, literally translated as “Grandpop Frost”. He wears a staff and either red or blue robes. Mrs. Claus is nowhere in sight, but Ded Moroz has a granddaughter instead, Snegurochka (Snow maiden), a young girl with a long braid.