The legend of Santa Claus originates from a 4th century bishop named Saint Nicholas of Myra. Famous for his generosity to the poor in what is present day Turkey, Saint Nicholas is said to have saved three impoverished daughters from slavery by providing for their dowries. Saint Nicholas is portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes, and his feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Dutch settlers brought the legend of Saint Nicholas, known to them as Sinter Klaas, to America. Legend has it that Sinter Klaas rode a white horse and left gifts in wooden shoes. This story merged with the British character Father Christmas, who dates back at least as far as the 17th century. Sinter Klaas was eventually Americanized to "Santa Claus."
The rituals and fantasy surrounding Santa Claus became fixed in the modern American imagination with the publication of the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore in 1823. Better known as "The Night Before Christmas," the poem established Santa´s physical appearance (plump and jolly), his mode of transportation (a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer), and his method of toy delivery (down the chimney) for generations to come.
The ritual of hanging stockings by the chimney comes from the German folk god Odin. Each year at Yule, German children would fill their boots with straw and place them by the chimney for Odin's flying horse to eat. Odin would replace the straw with gifts or candy to thank them for their kindness.
Some believe Saint Nicholas distributed his inheritance by anonymously dropping bags of gold coins down the chimneys of the poor. One little girl is said to have caught her bag in a stocking she had hung by the fire to dry.
The concept of Santa´s elves came from the Dutch, who believed Sinter Klaas had a slave named Black Peter. Legend has it Black Peter put bad children into his sack and held them in church overnight while the other children played with their new toys.
German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast was the first to paint a definitive portrait of the present day Santa Claus in 1863.
Mrs. Claus was created in 1889 by Katherine Lee Bates, a poet and author of America the Beautiful. In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, Goody is a shortened form of the word Goodwife.
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking if Santa Claus were real. The response, written by veteran editor Francis P. Church, son of a Baptist minister, became one of the most memorable editorials in newspaper history.
In 1931, Coca-Cola hired Haddon Sundblom to illustrate Santa Claus for a massive Christmas campaign. The ads firmly establishing the all-red outfit with white trimmings, which had previously been depicted in numerous colors.
Rudolph is an invention of Robert May, who came up with the ninth reindeer with his shiny red nose while working on a catalog for Montgomery Ward in 1939. Composer Johnny Marks penned the famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1949.