The jolly, generous and corpulent Santa Claus, so anticipated by children, is a relatively recent image of the Father of Christmas. This image was first popularized in 19th century America. Hollywood and global retail helped to expand this character of a happy bloke and spread the idea worldwide. However, Santa does have earlier roots. Santa's history is a history of both pagan and Christian tradition.
Santa's Christian heritage is embodied in his other names -- Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick. Tradition identifies Saint Nicholas as the bishop of Myra (a place near Finike in modern day Turkey). Apparently the Bishop was imprisoned during Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians and released under Constantine's rule. For a long time after his death, the Bishop's remains were supposedly enshrined at a church in Myra before they were captured and taken to Bari, Italy.
During medieval times, Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness was spread throughout western and Eastern Europe. He became a patron of kindness and protection for children, sailors, merchants and many other people who could benefit from his support. His stature was further embellished as he replaced and assumed the qualities of pagan gift giving figures from Roman, Germanic and Scandinavian tradition. Santa's connections to winter gift giving and sleigh riding came from the Viking god, Odin. Stories of the Roman figure Befana and the Germanic Brechta and Knecht Rupert also merged with legend surrounding St. Nick.
During the Protestant Reformation, German Protestants depicted the Christ child, "Chriskindl", as a giver of gifts. This helped merge the association of St. Nick with Christmas. Later, this association with Chriskindl was translated to Santa's other name: Kris Kringle.
The Reformation diminished Saint Nicholas' fame, and his legend all but disappeared in the Protestant countries of Europe, with the exception of Holland where he was known as Sinterklaas. On December 6th, the day for traditional Dutch festivities honoring Sinterklaas, his likeness was sometimes portrayed as riding a horse through the sky and accompanied by an elf, Black Peter, who's job it was to punish naughty kids. The eve of the festival for Sinterklaas is still the winter gift giving time for some European cultures.
Dutch settlers helped to spread the legend of Sinterklaas to the United States. The Saint's name changed from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote the first known American account of the tale of St. Nick. Clement Clark Moore used detail from Irving's writings and the melting pot of American cultural legend to write his famous "A Visit from Saint Nick" (more popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas"). Much of Moore's tale reveals the Scandinavian influence. "Tompten", the Scandinavian elf, may have inspired Moore's depiction of Santa as an elf who could maneuver chimneys with ease. Santa's team of reindeer is certainly an association with the Scandinavian north. Thomas Nast, an illustrator, further embellished Moore's depiction of Santa in issues of Harper's Magazine between 1860 and 1880. Nast pushed Santa's homeland even further north than Scandinavia -- to the North Pole.
In the last century Santa has demonstrated his truly magical qualities by growing from elf stature to elf employer. Despite this transition, Santa's reindeer still transport him and his over-sized carry-on bag. As he grows more rotund, Santa continues to prove himself agile enough to maneuver every chimney. The story of Rudolph, Santa's ninth reindeer with the glowing nose, was first told for commercial purposes. Rudolph's tale (should we say nose?) was brought to light in a Montgomery Ward Company advertising campaign in 1939. The naturalists at E-Cards continue to be amazed with Rudolph's nose, which is truly unique in the world.
For a character to have embraced so many magical transitions and to have endured the perils of so many years while maintaining such generosity, we at E-Cards can draw only one conclusion... Santa does truly exist!