The name Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicholas, who was a 4th century Greek bishop. However, I refuse any attempt to purely equate the modern day Santa Claus with the Saint. Rather Santa Claus is the amalgamation of many different traditions, including the story of a kindly Saint. For instance he bears a strange resemblance to the Norse God Odin (called Wodan by German tribes). Odin was a white bearded man who rode an eight legged flying horse, Sleipnir. Children used to leave treats for the horse in their boots and were rewarded by gifts from Odin. Ring any bells?
Almost all countries have their own version of Santa Claus, most of them pre-dating him and often they are an ancestor of sorts, but they have also been transformed by his relatively recent arrival on the scene. He is in at the moment so the others try to emulate him. There is the English Father Christmas, an old merry gentleman who was not originally a gift giver, but rather a symbol of Christmas cheer. Let’s not forget the Russian Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter the Snowmaiden. In Iceland the two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, had several sons, the Yule lads, whose origins as mischevious pranksters has been transformed into more benevolent figures in recent times. In Italy gifts are given on 6 January by Befana, the Christmas witch and in Spain, by the Three Wise Men. And these are just some of the European traditions…
The tradition I want to focus on is the Nordic, and more specifically the Finnish one. (I know, after 16 years in Belgium it is time to stop obsessing about Finnish Christmas, but I believe in the right of hanging on to childhood Christmas traditions.) The Finnish name for Santa Claus/Father Christmas is “joulupukki”, literally Yule goat, pointing to his origins as a man dressed up as a goat who knocked on your door after Christmas and solicited gifts either by performing or threatening you (eg. threatening to trash your fireplace which would be fatal during a Nordic winter). Perhaps it is fortunate that Christianity introduced this idea of voluntary giving, making it all a bit more civilized. The Yule goat also has another origin. In the olden days the last sheaf of corn harvested was believed to have magical properties. The bundle was called the yule goat and saved for the Yultide festivities.
I always maintain that the modern appearance of Santa Claus is inspired by the “tonttu” a little house-gnome that was believed to do chores around the house if you gave him porridge. Traditionally he would be dressed in grey with a red hat. Santa’s hat is remarkably similar to that of the “tonttu”. The “tonttu” still figures strongly in our Christmas tradition, it is customary to leave porridge out for him during Christmas and he has also adopted the role of Santa Claus’ helper, who checks up on the children. One possible way that the “tonttu” snuck into the American Santa Claus tradition is by way of the (in-) famous Coca-Cola drawing that is often credited/blamed for turning Santa red. Haddon Sundblom, the artist behind the picture, was of Finnish origin, and must have been influenced by Nordic traditions.
Finally, I want to make sure that everybody is aware that the real true Santa Claus lives in Finland and not on the North Pole as some sources suggest. (I am trying to pretend this part of my post in no way contradicts everything I wrote above) There is plenty of evidence for this. Firstly there are no reindeer on the North Pole proper, while there are plenty of them in Finland (approx. 200.00). Secondly, Santa delivers presents in Finland in the evening of Christmas Eve while further away they are only delivered during the night. Naturally, this must be because he starts in his home country. If you do not believe me, just have a peek at Santa in his office through this webcam!