Let's start with Santa Claus. The name Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicklaus. Nicholas lived sometime during the 3rd century in what is now the southern coast of Turkey. Nicholas was known for his generosity and his patronage to the poor, so the idea of Santa Claus is no stretch. And holidays celebrating St. Nicholas.
But what's the deal with the flying reindeer? And what's with the sneakiness through the chimney? These things, along with idea for Rudolph are pure 19th and 20th century American adaptations.
The image of the jolly old elf was developed from the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known now as "The Night Before Christmas." The poem's authorship has been disputed over the years, but what is truly remarkable is the imagination to turn St. Nick into a sleigh riding elf who used magical flying reindeer to descend onto the roofs of good girls and boys.
The 8 tiny reindeer were purely a product of the author's imagination. Regardless of whether the author is Clement C. Moore or Henry Livingston, millions of kids still check the weather reports and check the night sky to make sure Ol' St. Nick can get to their house safely.
Here's the vision of St. Nicholas from the poem.
"He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . ."
But these were just words, the true look of Santa came from the famous political cartoonist, Thomas Nast. In 1863 Nast was commissioned to draw a series of annual drawings of the Santa Claus in Harper's Weekly. His drawings, based on the descriptions from the poem and an earlier Dutch representation of the character. The drawings continued through 1886 and helped to shape the Santa Claus we know and love today.
For a more robust story of the history of St. Nicholas, click on the link below. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=35
And then there's Rudolph. Believe it or not, Rudolph came to be as a marketing ploy to entice people to shop at Montgomery Ward. The departments store would release an annual coloring book as a gimmick to promote holiday shopping. In 1939, one of Montgomery Ward's copywriters, Robert L. May, came up with the idea for an ostracized reindeer with whom it would be easy to sympathize. The story was a hit, and thus a promotion to sell more toys has turned into an American holiday icon.
Even Snopes is on the great Rudolph caper: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/rudolph.asp
Leave it to the great United States to everything bigger, better and brighter!
If you've got some time, here's a pretty informational video about the History of Christmas.
The history of Santa starts at 28:26 into the video, and Rudolph starts at 34.56