Christmas decorations - santa suits

The origin of Santa Claus Part 1

The Saint Behind the Legend - From Asia Minor to a Major Holiday Figure

Santa Claus is a legend but Saint Nicholas was a real person. He lived in Asia Minor (where the modern nation of Turkey is now) between about 280 A.D. and 350 A.D. Nicholas was the only child of a wealthy family. After his parents died of the plague, he joined the Catholic ministry. At age 30 he became the Bishop of Myra (a port town on the Mediterranean Sea).

A devout man by all accounts, Nicholas felt he had no need for the money left to him by his father. Instead, he gave it away to the poor, particularly to poor children.Over time, Nicholas's reputation grew. He was credited with performing many miracles, which, after his death, caused the Catholic Church to name him a saint.

During the 11th century, his remains were enshrined in a church in the Italian city of Bari. Some of the first Crusaders are believed to have stopped at Bari and carried stories about Nicholas to their homelands. During the Middle Ages, thousands of churches were built in Nicholas's honor throughout Europe. The anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, became a day to give gifts, especially to children. Clad in red and white bishop's robes and riding on a donkey, St. Nicholas was credited with visiting children's homes and placing gifts of fruit, nuts, hard candies, and small wooden and clay figurines on the hearth.

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Martin Luther tried to stop the worship of saints, even St. Nicholas. The tradition was forced underground, and merged with local pagan customs. Different countries and regions developed their own wintertime gift-givers (Der Weinachtsmann ("Christmas Man") in the Protestant regions of Germany; Father Christmas in England; Pere Noel in France).The Dutch, however, maintained the original St. Nicholas legend. When they established New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1600s, they brought the tradition with them. America's English settlers began to call the saint Santa Claus (based on "Sinterklaas," a colloquial Dutch shortening of "Saint Nikolaas").

Where Santa Comes From, Part 2
The All-American Santa - How Santa became a rotund bearded man dressed in a red suit

More info:
"St. Nicholas, An Example for Advent"
by The Passionist Missionaries

St. Nicholas of Myra by the French Ministry of Culture.