Take a few parts of a Greek legend, a heavy dash of Dutch folklore, some more Scandinavian divinites, a few English poems, artistic licenses and a hint of Christian mythology and you have the most powerful commerce icon ever to grace our planet.
The most common image of Santa Claus is that of a red coat wearing white-bearded man who travels in a sled of flying reindeers to hand out presents (built by elves at the North Pole) to all the good children of the world. It is interesting to note however, that just this simple description is an amalgam of various other legends and tales, most of which came together in the United States of America to be perpetuated throughout the world via the export of US pop culture.
As a land of immigrants, the US became a melting pot of races, religions and customs, many of which shared certain elements that pulled them together in just a short time.
A Mixed Blend
Various european nations had various celebrations of different origins that had been absorbed during the Christianization of Germanic Europe. Each celebration and custom had its own obscure origins, but once they were all celebrated at around the same time -- usually before the supposed birth date of Jesus on December 24 -- the amalgam began to come together, especially once people from different backgrounds found themselves in the same neighbourhoods.
Classic American Santa Claus
Below a style comparison of various inspiration.
left to right:
Germanic god Odin, Dutch Sinterklaas, English Father Christmas
In many ways Santa Claus is an example of cultural exchange, if unintentional. Just his person is a blend of the Dutch Sinterklaas, the English Father Christmas and the Greek Saint Nicholas, among others. Even his mode of transportation and the custom of handing out presents to children and the elves are pulled from various legends and origins, too numerous to be listed here.
The Modern Claus
Much of the modern Clause developed in the past 150 years, thanks to two important elements: entertainment and commerce.
Stories, songs, poems and novels have a great impact over how legends are perceived. Many of these stories were themselves inspired by overheard legends and then brought to paper by the writers along with a heavy dash of creative license.
The 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore is credited with developing the modern image of Santa Claus and what exactly it is that he does. Based on this poem the cartoonist Thomas Nast developed an image of Santa Claus that is perpetuated to this day.
As a fantastic commercial opportunity, Chrismas was particularly encouraged by industries and commerce. Special Christmas Day sales and other related products began pushing the Christmas button even more, using the personae of Santa Claus as an involuntary spokesperson.
As such the modern Santa Claus is a prime example of good advertising, by using a lovable image, pushing the emotion button by referencing legends and religious beliefs and encouraging positive emotions that can be translated into sales and revenue.