The animistic religion that preceded Christianity in Europe tended to have a different spirit to personify every aspect of their life. When farming wasn’t producing much, you’d go off to the forest and hunt and gather. This was seen as a nostalgic activity so the spirit of the forest was a generous old man who would supply your winter needs. In England and Germany, he was known as Mister Winter Greenery or the Green Man. When Christianity came to Europe many of the old myths lived on and the Green Man became Old Father Christmas. He made regular appearances in mumming plays and Morris dances under both guises. In Georgian England, Father Christmas had developed into an ogre who ate naughty children.
Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was the Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) in the 4th century. Various stories are attributed to him and he became very popular in Germany and the Netherlands. There’s a famous story about him climbing down a chimney and putting purses of gold into the stockings of some orphaned girls to save them from prostitution. This possibly relates to a different Nicholas since chimneys weren’t invented until over 1,000 years later. In the middle ages, St Nicholas was the one who distributed presents and sweetmeats to children on his feast day 8th December. He was depicted wearing a bishop’s chasuble and mitre – usually in green.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced a number of German traditions to Britain, including being kind to children. Father Christmas was rehabilitated and given many of the attributes of Saint Nicholas. He stopped eating children and took to giving them presents on the night before Christmas. Father Christmas was depicted wearing a long coat with fur trim – either in red or green although red gradually became the norm.
Dutch settlers in America took with them St Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Dutch). Somehow Americans managed to turn him into an overweight elf called Santa Claus who delivers presents to the world’s children on the night before Christmas making use of a flying sleigh and reindeer. Back came the chimney routine – hardly the ideal means of entry for an obese elf. He was depicted wearing a red boiler suit and this was reinforced by the famous picture of him on the telephone in a Coca-Cola advertisement.
Then commerce stepped in. To get people into the shops before Christmas, the US offered a visit to Santa and Britain offered a chance to meet Father Christmas. In the 20th century, the traditions gradually merged.