The modern figure of Santa Claus is largely an American creation, believed by many to have been based on St. Nicholas legends and festivities brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch, with a name derived from the Dutch "Sinterklaas" or "Sinte Klaas." Washington Irving (that guy has been coming up a lot recently, hasn't he?) is believed to have originated the image of St. Nicholas as a fat guy with a pipe, which was later expanded upon in the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The poem is usually attributed to Clement Moore, but his authorship is pretty widely disputed nowadays. Thomas Nast drew images of Santa in a red and white coat, and Haddon Sundblom's Coca-Cola advertisements helped to make this the standard Santa garb. I'm not sure when Santa started wearing glasses, which are a pretty typical accessory for mall Santas, perhaps largely because they work with the fake beard in hiding the person's real face. It also helps convey the image of Santa as a jolly old man.
The European equivalent of Santa is Father Christmas, who originated in the seventeenth century as a personification of the holiday of Christmas. This was the era in which Puritans refused to celebrate the holiday, which was rather more chaotic in those days. (Okay, it's still chaotic, but not in the same way. The Christmas of that time actually bore some similarities to the modern Halloween.) Father Christmas did not originate as a gift-giver, but the European and American traditions merged, so that he and Santa are now pretty much interchangeable. Images of Father Christmas often have more of a rustic, woodsy look than modern portrayals of the American Santa, though. Some European countries have come to incorporate both St. Nicholas AND Father Christmas into their own traditions.
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther thought that the celebration of Nicholas was too Catholic (he was, after all, a saint), and encouraged the adoption of a new gift-giver, the Christ Child. In German, this version of the baby Jesus (not sure why he reverts to infant form to deliver gifts, but hey, mysterious ways and all that) was called by the diminutive "Christkindl," from which the name "Kris Kringle" derives. The belief in the Christ Child as the distributor of presents lives on in some parts of Europe, including Austria, Hungary, and southern Germany. Northern Germany, however, has adopted Father Christmas, referring to him as "Weihnachtsmann" (literally "Christmas Man"). I suppose that means Germany actually has THREE December gift-givers, but maybe they can afford that in the post-reunification economy. (Too bad I didn't think of that joke, like, fifteen years ago, since I'm not sure the German economy is quite as strong now.)
So, in other words, if you throw a Turkish bishop, a one-eyed Norse god, the winter solstice, a holiday personification, and soda ads into a blender, you end up with the modern idea of Santa Claus. Later this month, I intend to take a look at Santa's helpers. Also, I noticed on Wikipedia that Italy has traditions of a woman on a broomstick and a blind lady on a goat giving presents, so those might be worth checking out.
For a special bonus, check out the first appearance of Santa on film. Not sure what's up with the music from Home Alone, but I guess that kind of thing is par for the course on YouTube videos. And here's my computer-generated letter to Santa, courtesy of ozma914:
This year I've been busy!
Last Monday I signed my organ donor card (28 points). In March I put money in aliste's expired parking meter (14 points). In October I pushed punterschlagen in the mud (-17 points). In September I ruled Canada as a cruel and heartless dictator (-700 points). Last Friday I gave yosef a kidney (1000 points).
Overall, I've been nice (325 points). For Christmas I deserve a shiny red ball!