Santa Claus wasn’t always a jolly, big-bellied man, the delight of many children’s imagination. The myth originated with a certain Nicholas. He was a fourth century Greek Christian bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of Byzantine Anatolia (today’s Turkey). Nicholas gained his fame for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular for presenting dowries to three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian couple. These gifts allowed these young girls to survive without succumbing to a life of prostitution.
Centuries later, in 1087, the business people of the Italian city of Bari wanted to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry, with Bari as a pilgrimage destination. They mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the heroic Nicholas. They found his tomb. But, to their dismay it had been desecrated years earlier. However, they were able to salvage a few bones, presumably of Nicholas. These bones were taken back to Bari and entombed in a basilica that was built that same year and named in his honor. His fame continued to grow and their enterprise proved a success. The Catholic Church declared him a saint and patron of many diverse groups, from archers to children to pawnbrokers.
Parallels had been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure Odin, a major god among the ancient Germanic people. They claimed that Odin led a great hunting party in the sky riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipner. This strange horse could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa’s reindeer. Children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipner’s food with gifts or candy. This myth became increasingly Christianized, then, modernized and incorporated into many of today’s Christmas stories.