On the night before Christmas, all across the world, millions of children will be tucked in their beds while "visions of sugarplums dance in their heads." When they awake they will check their stockings to see if Santa Claus has come.
Santa Claus has become the most beloved of Christmas symbols and traditions. The image of the jolly old elf flying in a sleigh pulled by reindeers and leaving toys and gifts for every child is know worldwide.
Just like the season of Christmas, the history of the origins of Santa Claus is influenced by the customs and cultures of many countries, beginning in Asia Minor sometime around the 4th century AD. It was here that Bishop Nicholas became renowned for his exceptional generosity, especially to the very young. Many years later he became known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
As time went on, adults began to dress in the manner of Saint Nicholas, dressed in Bishops vestments and carrying a staff., to re-enact the kindness of the saint. They went from house to house, asking if the children who lived there had been well behaved. In response to these visits, the children left their shoes outside the doors of their houses so that next morning they might find them filled with sweets and trinkets.
An Anglo-Saxon version eventually evolved and was known as Father Christmas. His character was a mixture of the Saint Nicholas and earthly perceptions of the gods Thor and Saturn. He wore robes decorated with ivy and holly and carried a switch to threaten unruly children, as well as a bag of toys to reward the well behaved.
In North America the British, German and Dutch settlers introduced their own derivations of Father Christmas and of these the Dutch figure of 'Sinterklaas' became the common favourite. Eventually this name was anglicised to become Santa Claus, the mythical figure of Christmas who placed toys, sweets and trinkets into stockings hung by the fireplace.
The modern perception of the character of Father Christmas was greatly influenced by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist with Harpers Weekly, who published a drawing of Santa Claus in 1860. This was a portly figure with white hair and a long beard, dressed in a red robe and wearing a crown of holly, holding a long clay pipe similar to that of Sinterklaas.
Perhaps the final stage in the evolution of the modern Santa Claus was brought about by publicity from the Coca Cola Company. They launched an advertising campaign in the 1930s with Santa Claus as the central figure and subsequently used the motif for the next forty years or so.
This conception of Santa Claus was produced for them by Haddon Sundblom, who built on the character and costume created by Thomas Nast to produce a cheery, chubby fellow that is still a familiar perception of the mythical Christmas character to millions of people throughout the Western world.