The figure now commonly known as Santa Claus has been a Christmastime icon for centuries, originating with an actual Christian saint, St. Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was born in what is now Turkey around 280 A.D. and dedicated his life to philanthropy. During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day, December 6, children were given gifts in his honor.
Shown here is a 12th-century fresco of St Nicholas of Myra from a church in Cyprus.
St. Nicholas' legacy of kindness and generosity elevated him to a legendary figure in Europe. St. Nicholas' Dutch nickname, Sinterklaas (a short version of Sint Nikolaas) evolved into the name many Americans now recognize, "Santa Claus."
In England another icon known as Father Christmas emerged during the 16th century reign of Henry VIII. Father Christmas was known as a Yule-tide visitor who was often pictured as a large man in green or red robes lined with fur.
Records suggests the two figures were combined in the 1870s.
Here, an undated U.S. postcard titled "Christmas Greetings" shows a blue-robed and bearded Father Christmas.
Rome eventually bumped St. Nicholas from the universal calendar of saints in 1969, but St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Father Christmas, a.k.a. Santa Claus had already long been secured in the hearts and minds of European and American folklore.
Shown, a little boy in blue peers from behind a Santa mask in this drawing from 1887.
One of the first American Santas was depicted as the "right jolly old elf" from Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also called "Twas the Night Before Christmas."
This 1837 canvas of St. Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir may have been at least partly inspired by Moore's poem.
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Many artists helped cement Santa as a chubby man in a red coat, including Thomas Nast, a cartoonist who drew for several publications. His 1890 book "Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race" featured many illustrations of Santa with a big belly.
This is an 1881 illustration by Nast.
This Dec. 31, 1898 cover of "Judge" magazine (a weekly satirical U.S. magazine published from 1881 to 1947) is titled "The Chimney Is Too Small." The illustration refers to a controversial year when the United States took four colonies.
The cover of 1907 sheet music for the "Santa Claus" march composed by Fred Vokoun.
An undated postcard of Santa on the rooftop with a bag full of toys.
In this postcard from 1915, Santa exits just in time, leaving a trail of gifts behind him.
A portly Santa rings a bell in this undated greeting card.
In the 1920s, Coca Cola featured a fat jolly Santa in widespread ad campaigns to remind people they could drink their soda in winter time, as well as in summer.
Santa was even recruited during war time. Here, he's featured in a World War II-era War Bonds and stamps poster.
Santa and Mrs. Claus glide on candy cane skis in this illustration from the mid-century period.
The first mention of a wife for Santa was in the 1849 short story "A Christmas Legend" by James Rees. The idea of a Mrs. Claus eventually found its way into several publications. The Mrs. Claus character probably became most widely known with the publishing of Katherine Lee Bates' 1889 poem "