Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition.
Irish historians say that his remains were moved on again from Italy to Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny, where his grave can still be seen. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailor, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization. Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Santa Claus.
Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky.
Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus's reindeer. Further, Odin was referred to by many names in Skaldic poetry, some of which describe his appearance or functions. These include Síðgrani, Síðskeggr, Langbarðr, (all meaning "long beard") and Jólnir ("Yule figure").
According to Phyllis Siefker, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice, she claims, survived in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes.
This practice in turn came to the United States through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam prior to the British seizure in the 17th century, and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.
One story tells of a poor man and his three daughters. With no money to get his daughters married, he was worried what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas knowing the anguish of the father, stopped by the man's house after the family had gone to bed. He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl. Seeing the daughters stockings hung over the fireplace for drying, he put one gold bag in each stocking and left. The girls waking up the next morning, they each found a bag of gold coins in their stocking. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.
In Hungary, many regions of Austria and former Austro-Hungarian Italy (Friuli, city of Trieste) children are given sweets and gifts on Saint Nicholas's Day (San Niccolò in Italian), in accordance with the Catholic calendar, December 6.
Numerous other influences from the pre-Christian Germanic winter celebrations have continued into modern Christmas celebrations such as the Christmas ham, Yule Goat, Yule log, and the Christmas tree.
In The Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicolas, ("Sinterklaas", often called "De Goede Sint" — "The Good Saint") is aided by helpers commonly known as Zwarte Piet ("Black Peter") in Dutch or "Père Fouettard" in French. Note that "Santa Claus" is phonetically related to the Dutch "Sinterklaas", so much so that for a Dutch person the origin of the name "Santa Claus" is obvious; it's just "sinterklaas" pronounced in English.
His feast on December 6 came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts. However, in the Netherlands the Dutch celebrate his "birthday" on the evening of the day before December 6th, during a celebration called "Pakjesavond". At the Reformation in 16th-17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date of giving gifts changed from December the 6th to Christmas Eve.
The folklore of Saint Nicolas has many parallels with Germanic mythology, in particular with the god Odin. These include the beard, hat and spear (nowadays a staff) and the cloth bag held by the servants to capture naughty children. Both Saint Nicolas and Odin ride white horses that can fly through the air; the white eight-legged steed of Odin is named Sleipnir (although Sleipnir is more commonly depicted as gray). The letters made of candy given by the Zwarte Pieten to the children evokes the fact that Odin ‘invented’ the rune letters. The poems made during the celebration and the songs the children sing relate to Odin as the god of the arts of poetry.
There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on. In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. The devil is defeated by either Odin or his helper Nörwi, the black father of the night. Nörwi is usually depicted with the same staff of birch (Dutch: "roe") as Zwarte Piet.
Another, more modern story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called 'Piter' (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper. With the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Piet have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb through chimneys, causing their skin to become blackened by soot. They hold chimney cleaning tools (cloth bag and staff of birch).
Presents given during this feast are often accompanied by poems, some basic, some quite elaborate pieces of art that mock events in the past year relating to the recipient. The gifts themselves may be just an excuse for the wrapping, which can also be quite elaborate. The more serious gifts may be reserved for the next morning. Since the giving of presents is Sinterklaas's job, presents are traditionally not given at Christmas in the Netherlands, although the latter is gaining popularity with families with older or no kids.
The Zwarte Pieten have roughly the same role for the Dutch Saint Nicolas that the elves have to America's Santa Claus. According to tradition, the saint has a Piet for every function: there are navigation Pieten to navigate the steamboat from Spain to Holland, or acrobatic Pieten for climbing up the roofs to stuff presents through the chimney, or to climb through the chimneys themselves. Throughout the years many stories have been added, mostly made up by parents to keep children's belief in Saint Nicolas intact and to discourage misbehaviour. In most cases the Pieten are quite lousy at their job, such as the navigation Piet (Dutch "wegwijspiet") pointing in the wrong direction. This is often used to provide some simple comedy in the annual parade of Saint Nicolas coming to the Netherlands, and can also be used to laud the progress of children at school by having the Piet give the wrong answer to, for example, a simple mathematical question like 2+2, so that the child in question is (or can be) persuaded to give the right answer.
In Netherlands and Belgium the character of Santa Claus, as known in the United States (with his white beard, red and white outfit, etc.), is entirely distinct from Sinterklaas, known instead as de Kerstman in Dutch (trans. the Christmasman) or Père Noël (Father Christmas) in French. Although Sinterklaas is the predominant gift-giver in the Netherlands in December (36% of the population only give presents on Sinterklaas day), Christmas is used by another fifth of the Dutch population to give presents (21% give presents on Christmas only). Some 26% of the Dutch population give presents on both days. In Belgium, presents are given to children only, but to almost all of them, on Sinterklaas day. On Christmas Day, everybody receives presents, but often without Santa Claus' help.
Not meaning to sound like a buzz kill, who knows who can afford gifts this year? All thanks to Uncle SAMuel Scrooge and his Judeo-Capitalist cohorts.