The modern version of Santa is, as most people know, the creation of Clement Clarke Moore, a 19th-century American poet whose "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy, NY Sentinel. Prior to this, St. Nicholas was not a "jolly old elf" with "eight tiny reindeer" and "a sleigh full of toys"; he was a stern, bearded patriarch who distributed canings to naughty children (as well as presents to the well-behaved). In many countries, particularly the Netherlands, he still appears on St. Nicholas Day -Dec. 6, not Christmas Eve - brandishing a shepherd's crook and a slightly ferocious mien, and woe unto those who have been disobedient to their parents.
Thomas Nast's 1881 version of Santa
St. Nicholas is venerated in both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition. Sailors revere him as a patron saint because he is credited with saving the life of a mariner who fell overboard in a terrible storm. He is associated with gift-giving because of his renowned generosity throughout his lifetime - he had a penchant for tossing bags of gold at the needy and threadbare.
Nicholas is also frequently portrayed as the patron saint of children, and, like a lot of religious stories, how he got the honorarium is fairly grisly. According to one story, during a terrible famine, a butcher who ran out of pork decided to make up the shortfall by killing and pickling three small children in a barrel of brine. St. Nicholas, no fool he, figured out the butcher's foul plot and, through prayer, miraculously brought the children back to life (presumably pieced back together correctly). What happened to the evil butcher is not elucidated, but we can hope he got his just desserts, as it were.
St. Nicholas and the unpickled children
Nicholas' journey from a righteous re-assembler of pickled children to a stern and scary patriarch, to a bringer of bicycles and Chatty Cathy dolls, is a fascinating story of how myths evolve to accommodate their cultures. Moore himself actually wrote another poem, called "The Santeclaus," that seems to bridge the gap between the kinder, gentler Santa and the more intimidating Dutch incarnation. I haven't been able to discover whether this predated or came after "A Visit from St. Nicholas." There's a certain curmudgeonliness to this one that makes me suspect it was written later, after an overlong visit from rambunctious grandchildren. Note, too, the pitch for educational toys and things that won't put your eye out.
by Clement Clarke Moore
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.
Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.
Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.
To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.
No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.