St. Nicholas was born around A.D. 270 in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Little is known of his life. He was bishop of Myra, also in Asia Minor, and he most likely suffered persecution and imprisonment under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Following the legalization of Christianity by Constantine (313) he probably attended the First Council of Nicea, where an early version of the Nicene Creed was drafted. He is believed to have died on December 6, 347.
So how did St. Nicholas of Myra become jolly ol’ Saint Nick, aka Santa Claus? A legend tells how the saint gave money anonymously to a poor man with three daughters. Nicholas threw three bags of coins in the man’s window, one for each daughter. Depending on the version of the legend he gave the coins on consecutive nights, or annually. Because of the legend, Nicholas became commonly acknowledged as the patron saint of children, and giving gifts became a tradition on his feast day, Dec 6.
The Dutch brought Nicholas to the New World in the form of Sinterklaas, who like Santa brings gifts to children, though on St. Nicholas’ Eve (Dec 5) not Christmas. Like Santa, Sinterklaas wears red and sports a big white beard, though his clothes are still that of a bishop.
It wasn’t until the Nineteeth Century, though, that the Santa we know today was born, thanks in part to illustrations by Thomas Nast and the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (commonly known as The Night Before Christmas.) attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. From these sources come the plump and jolly Santa, the red and white “santa suit,” the chimney, the names of the reindeer, and Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve.
The version of Santa we know today was popularized (though certainly not invented) by a 1930’s Coca Cola Campaign. Santa was obviously chosen by the soft drink company because his tradititional outfit of red and white matched their product making him the ideal symbol for a Christmas promotion, and subsequently a worldwide icon.