The Viking god Odin is one precursor to the modern Santa Claus. According to myth, Odin rode his flying horse, Sleipnir (a precursor to Santa’s reindeer), who had eight legs. In the winter, Odin gave out both gifts and punishments, and children would fill their boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir.
Early illustrations of St. Nicholas depict him as stern, commanding, and holding a birch rod. He was more a symbol of discipline and punishment than the jolly, overweight elf children know today.
Santa Claus is based on a real person, St. Nikolas of Myra (also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker, Bishop Saint Nicholas of Smyrna, and Nikolaos of Bari), who lived during the fourth century. Born in Patara (in modern-day Turkey), he is the world’s most popular non-Biblical saint, and artists have portrayed him more often than any other saint except Mary. He is the patron saint of banking, pawn broking, pirating, butchery, sailing, thievery, orphans, royalty, and New York City.
St. Nicholas was bishop of the Turkish town of Myra in the early 4th century. The Dutch first made him into a Christmas gift-giver, and Dutch settlers brought him to America where his name eventually became the familiar Santa Claus.
When distributing gifts in Holland, St. Nicholas is accompanied his servant Black, who is responsible for actually dropping the presents down their recipients’ chimneys. He also punishes bad children by putting them in a bag and carrying them away to Spain.
When visiting Finland, Santa leaves his sleigh behind and rides on a goat named Ukko. Finnish folklore has it that Ukko is made of straw, but is strong enough to carry Santa Claus anyway.
Each year there are approximately 20,000 “Rent-a-Santas” across the United States. “Rent-a-Santas” usually undergo seasonal training on how to maintain a jolly attitude under pressure from the public. They also receive practical advice, such as not accepting money from parents while children are looking and avoiding garlic, onions, or beans for lunch.
One town in Indiana is called Santa Claus. There is also a Santa, Idaho.