Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.
The remains of Saint Nicholas are in Italy. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Saint. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was conquered by Italian sailors and his relics were taken to Bari where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout. Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas' skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade and taken to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the San Nicolò al Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two important scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two Italian cities belong to the same skeleton. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day of 6 December, children were bestowed gifts in his honour. This date was earlier than the original day of gifts for the children, which moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24th and 25 December. The custom of gifting to children at Christmas has been propagated by Martin Luther as an alternative to the previous very popular gift custom on St. Nicholas, to focus the interest of the children to Christ instead of the veneration of saints. Martin Luther first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts. But Nicholas remained popular as gifts bearer for the people.
Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day. The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of 'good cheer'. His physical appearance was variable, with one famous image being John Leech's illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.
Dutch, Belgian and Swiss folklore
Sinterklaas, Netherlands (2009) on his horse called Slecht Weer Vandaag
In the Netherlands and Belgium the character of Santa Claus has to compete with that of Sinterklaas, Santa's presumed progenitor. Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman in Dutch ("the Christmas man") and Père Noël ("Father Christmas") in French. But for children in the Netherlands Sinterklaas remains the predominant gift-giver in December; 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas evening or the day itself (December 6), whereas Christmas (December 25) is used by another 21% to give presents. Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days. In Belgium, Sinterklaas day presents are offered exclusively to children, whereas on Christmas Day, all ages may receive presents. Sinterklaas' assistants are called "Zwarte Pieten" (in Dutch, "Pères Fouettard" in French), so they are not elves. In Switzerland, Pères Fouettard accompanies Père Noël in the French speaking region, while the sinister Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus in the Swiss German region. Schmutzli carries a twig broom to spank the naughty children.
Germanic paganism, Wodan, and Christianization
Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule (Old English geola or giuli). With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Wodan (Norse Odin), bearing (among many names) the names Jólnir, meaning "Yule figure", and Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard", in Old Norse.
Wodan's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (compare Odin's horse Sleipnir) or his reindeer in North American tradition. Folklorist Margaret Baker maintains that "the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. ... Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage."
In Finland Santa Claus is called Joulupukki (direct translation 'Christmas Goat'). The flying reindeer could symbolize the use of fly agaric by Sámi shamans.