Santa Claus hasn't always looked like the jolly old fellow we know today. Like so many other American traditions, he's a product of the great American melting pot - a blend of many different cultures and customs. His earliest ancestors date back to pre-Christian days, when sky-riding gods ruled the earth. The mythological characters Odin, Thor, and Saturn gave us the basis for many of Santa's distinctive characteristics.
A TRADITION OF BENEVOLENCE
In a well known story illustrating St, Nicholas' benevolence, we find two of the basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less fortunate - as well as the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.
Because of his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance and protection. Entire countries, including Russia and Greece, also adopted him as their patron saint, as well as students and pawnbrokers.
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saints generous spirit.
Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.