“Santa Claus” is an American corruption of the Dutch form Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas, a figure brought to America by the early Dutch colonists (see The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 19, p. 649, “Nicholas, St.”). This name, in turn, is said to stem from St. Nicholas, bishop of the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor, a Catholic saint honored by the Greeks and the Latins on Dec. 6.
He was bishop of Myra in the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, was persecuted, tortured for the Catholic faith and kept in prison until the more tolerant reign of Constantine (ibid.). Various stories claim a link from Christmas to St. Nicholas, all of them having to do with gift-giving on the eve of St. Nicholas, subsequently transferred to Christmas Day (ibid.).
How, we might ask, did a bishop from the sunny Mediterranean coast of Turkey come to be associated with a red-suited man who lives at the North Pole and rides in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer? Knowing what we have already learned about the ancient pre-Christian origins of Christmas, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Santa Claus, too, is nothing but a figure recycled from ancient pagan beliefs.
The trappings associated with Santa Claus—his fur-trimmed wardrobe, sleigh and reindeer—reveal his origin from the cold climates of the far North. Some sources trace him to the ancient Northern European gods Woden (or Odin) and Thor, from which the days of the week Wednesday (Woden’s day) and Thursday (Thor’s day) get their designations (Earl and Alice Count, 4000 Years of Christmas, 1997, pp. 56-64). Others trace him even farther back in time to the Roman god Saturn and the Greek god Silenus (William Walsh, The Story of Santa Klaus, pp. 70-71).