‘Santa Claus’, as he is currently represented in the United States, most resembles Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas. “In the year 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded all the citizens of the Roman Empire, including the citizens of Asia Minor, to worship him as a god. Christians, who believed in only one god, resisted the emperor’s orders and as a result were imprisoned. Saint Nicholas was among the many imprisoned. He was confined for more than five years, until Constantine came to power in 313 AD and released him. Later in life, Saint Nicholas became the Archbishop of Myra and the guardian of merchants, sailors and children.
He performed many good deeds including miracles. It is said that Saint Nicholas stopped storms at sea to save sailors and brought dead children back to life. The legend of Saint Nicholas, who died 6 December around 340, became very popular in the Medieval Ages, when Italian soldiers transported his remains from his burial site in Myra to Italy. In Bari, a small town in Southern Italy, a church was built in Saint Nicholas’ name, and soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world visited the church and took his legend home with them. As the tale of Saint Nicholas spread throughout the world, his character was adapted, taking on characteristics of different countries.” http://www.expatica.com/nl/lifestyle_leisure/lifestyle/the-sinterklaas-story–117.html
Santa Claus as we know him today in the United States is much more than a Christian gift giver, however. What about the sleigh and reindeer, for example? That’s where the ‘characteristics of different countries’ comes in. When the Germanic tribes were gradually converted to Christianity, the Church had an overt policy of incorporating pagan traditions into Christian ones, which is how we get Christmas in the first place. In Wales, the first day of winter was celebrated on Nov. 1, but many pagan cultures celebrated the solstice (see my post here: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/the-darkest-day-of-the-year/) and thus Jesus’s birth occurred then too, rather than in the spring when it most likely happened.
One adaptation I find fascinating is the writing of The Heliand, the first four books of the Bible in Saxon, except Jesus is turned into a thane and the twelve disciples are his warriors. See it here: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/4107/
Anyway, back to Santa … “One of the most famous and enduring Wild Hunt mythology strands comes from Germanic folklore from Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, recounting how at Yuletide, Woden or Wotan in the Anglo Saxon tradition or Odin in Scandinavian lands led the Wild Hunt through the heavens. In pre Christian oral traditions it would seem, however, Odin chased wood elves or, sometimes, beautiful maidens at the Midwinter Solstice around December 21, one of the main times the Hunt was seen. Some accounts say he dropped gifts at the foot of his sacred pine for the faithful, possibly one of the origins of Christmas presents. Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir was the source for the legend of the eight reindeer of Santa Claus. Santa himself was the old Holly King/Odin and Saint Nicholas rolled into one.
When Odin was demonised (he can still be seen in his devilish persona as Black Peter or Black Rupert in St Nicholas Day processions in Europe) Odin’s huntsmen and women became the ungodly dead, who unable to gain admission to heaven, were released from hell to hunt for—what else but souls?” http://www.cassandraeason.com/folklore_legend/the-wild-hunt.htm
“Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, Pagan rituals and customs were prevalent throughout the lands and there was another whose arrival was long awaited by the inhabitants of northern Germany and Scandinavia – Odin the Wanderer or Wodan, the father of all the gods. Also known as the warrior god, the legends that became part of our Santa tradition were mostly of the benevolent kind. It was Odin who traveled the skies by night on his sled with his eight-legged horse Sleipner bringing gifts of bread for those in need.
According to Viking lore, the northern Germans and Scandinavians celebrated Yule, a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January. During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth on his eight-legged horse, to observe homesteaders gathered around the campfires to see how content the people were and for those in need of food, he left his gifts of bread and disappeared.
As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin and would fill their boots with straw, carrots or sugar and place them near the fireplace so that Sleipnir could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these kind children by replacing the food with gifts and candy treats inside the boots.” http://www.examiner.com/article/christmas-traditions-europe-odin-and-the-celebration-of-yule
And now we have Santa visiting children on Christmas Day.