Most people have a pretty clear image of Santa Claus in their mind. When they think of Santa, they see a fat man in a red suit with white trim, who ride in a sleigh behind flying reindeer and climbs down chimneys to deliver gifts. It's an enduring image, but it's also one that's relatively young. The modern Santa Claus is an American innovation, which started as a combination of several different traditions from Europe before it grew into something entirely new.
The Origin of Santa Claus
The oldest part of the Santa Claus tradition comes from the 4th century. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in Myra, which is now part of Turkey. He was famous for his generosity to the poor, which is one explanation for the origin of Christmas presents. His medieval feast day was December 6th, but he became part of the Christmas tradition when most Christians stopped celebrating days for individual saints.
He was most likely the inspiration for the Dutch Sinterklaas, who takes the role of Santa in the Netherlands. A large part of Santa's modern appearance comes from traditional depictions of Sinterklaas in the red robes of a priest. Some of his appearance also comes from Germanic myth, especially stories about Odin, who was worshiped during the winter.
England also provides an influence in the form of Father Christmas, who dates back to at least the 16th century. His appearance varied, but it usually included a suit in either red or green, which was often lined with white fur. He was a personification of happiness and celebration during the winter, and is probably why Santa Claus is seen as a jolly figure of joy.
Santa Comes to America
The two traditions of Father Christmas and Sinterklaas merged while the United States were still colonies. English and Dutch colonists mingled, especially in New York, and their cultures came together. Santa Claus' name most likely came from English colonists struggling to pronounce the Dutch Sinterklaas, and it became the standard when English became the dominant language in the colonies.
The first reference to Santa Claus in print comes just before the American revolution. It dates back to 1773, but it became lodged in the American mind a few decades later. Washinton Irving wrote a book where he mocked the remnants of Dutch culture in New York, and it included references to Santa. His Santa was a fat sailor with a thick coat. Very little of the image stuck, but his book did spread Santa's name.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
Santa's development in the 1800s continued in the literary world. A variety of authors and cartoonists contributed to the development, but none of them were more influential than the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" which is better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas."
That was the poem that established the modern Santa story. Santa's sleigh and reindeer originate with the book, as did his trip down the chimney. Other aspects of the story, like Santa's outfit and his big belly, originated with earlier works but became much more popular when the poem was published. The poem was so popular that references to it spread all over the world, which started to export the American Santa image outside of the country.
A cartoonist named Thomas Nast drew the definitive picture of Santa almost forty years later. He drew for a magazine called Harper's Weekly, which was one of the biggest publications of the time. The picture was part of a political cartoon about the Civil War, but it was combined with several other pictures into a Christmas collection that spread all over the country.
A Modern American Santa Emerges
Santa's final literary development came in 1902, with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but Frank L. Baum. Baum is responsible for Santa's elves and immortality, but he largely popularized older images. Santa's appearance was fixed in the modern mind by an ad from the Coca-Cola Company. Many people claim that the ad invented the modern appearance, but it wasn't even the first soft drink ad to feature him. It simply took existing ideas about Santa Claus and gave them a lasting place in popular culture.