Santa Claus, the jolly, fat fellow with the white whiskers, red suit and pointy hat with white fur trim, has not always looked that way.
In fact, he has appeared in many different guises, not least because he is an amalgam of various real (or supposedly real people) and mythical characters.
The name is a corruption of the Dutch “Sinterklaas”, which in turn is a corrupt version of the Latin “Sanctus Nicolaus”, from the Greek “Hagios Nikolaos”.
The original Greek version was the Bishop of Myra (then in Greece, now in Turkey), who lived from the years 270 to 343 AD. For convenience, let’s call him St Nicholas.
He is the patron saint of merchants, archers, sailors and thieves who repent, pawnbrokers, students – and children. He is credited with restoring to life three children who had been chopped up by an evil butcher who planned to sell them as ham, and with helping to feed the people of Myra in time of famine by diverting part of a cargo of grain that belonged to the Emperor of Constantinople.
But the story that links him most closely to the current image concerns three girls from a poor family whose father could not afford a dowry for them, meaning they could not marry and would end up on the street. Reluctant to embarrass them by helping them publicly, the saint climbed onto the roof of their house and dropped three bags of gold coins, one for each girl, down the chimney.
St Nicholas was buried in Myra, but some 700 years later much of his skeleton was stolen by sailors, who brought the bones back to their hometown of Bari in Italy where they remain to this day.
The red suit appears to come from a different character, the English “Father Christmas”, who was never a real person, but a 15th Century invention (with a variety of names) who was symbolic of the traditions of Christmas.
By the 17th Century the character had been refined into a merry old chap whose main purpose appears to have been to encourage people to eat and drink a lot to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s birth.
He doesn’t seem to have been associated with children or the giving of gifts. That link came somewhere in the mid-Victorian era when Father Christmas and St Nicholas were merged, though the emphasis was still on eating and drinking.
The red suit was added at least 130 years ago. American cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted him in 1881 in a way that is recognisably linked to the modern version, festooned with toys.
The elves? In Germanic mythology elves were diminutive woodland dwellers and frankly, rather a nasty lot, given to threats, seduction and causing people to do harm to themselves. But the Elizabethans somehow managed to mix them up with fairies, making them much more benevolent.
An almost interminable 1823 American poem called “A Visit From Santa Claus” describes Santa himself as “a right jolly old elf” – rather odd for the fat old chap in the red suit.
That description didn’t stick but, within a decade or so, the American version of Santa Claus was equipped with an entourage of green-suited chappies about a foot tall who made all the toys the Santa would distribute.
The reindeer and sleigh in which Santa flits around delivering gifts appear to be an invention of author L. Frank Baum in his 1902 children’s novel, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. But that’s a tale for another time.