On the 24th of December every year, children around the world put out milk and cookies in the hopes of luring a magic fat man into their home who will leave presents behind before sneaking into the house next door.
How did such an odd tradition begin?
You can pretty much blame Northern Europe, where the winter weather is cold and dark and depressing. And the coldest and darkest and depressingest day is the Solstice on December 21st to 22nd when the sun only gives a few weak hours of light if any at all.
These sun-deprived people invented magical characters to visit them and lighten the mood by bringing gifts and celebrations. These characters ranged from elves to Gods to goats, but there are two of particular interest to the modern story.
The first is Saint Nick, in The Netherlands. Saint Nick is thin and perhaps a bit stern, but still brings presents to children in early December. He dresses like a bishop in red and white with a staff and rides on a horse named Amerigo, for whom Dutch children are encouraged to leave out a carrot. Saint Nick is called Sinterklaas in Dutch.
第一個是荷蘭的Saint Nick。Saint Nick很瘦，可能還有點嚴苛，但還是會在十二月初帶禮物給孩子們。他穿著像主教一樣的紅白衣服，拿著權仗並騎著一匹名為Amerigo的馬，荷蘭的孩子們被鼓勵留給牠一支紅蘿蔔。Saint Nick的荷蘭文叫做Sinterklaas。
The second character is Father Christmas from England. Father Christmas is a big, jolly pagan dressed in green with a holly wreath on his head. Traditionally he is less concerned with children and gifts than he is with food and wine and celebration and is perhaps best known for being one of the three spirits of Christmas who terrorize Scrooge.
第二個角色是從英國來的Father Christmas。Father Christmas是個身材魁梧、快樂的異教徒，穿著綠色衣服，頭戴冬青花環。傳統上，他跟孩子們及禮物的關係，還不及於他和食物、美酒和慶典的關係，而且也許他最出名的身分可能是三個聖誕節精靈之中，會恐嚇Scrooge(吝嗇鬼)的那一個。
When Europeans settled the colonies, Saint Nick and Father Christmas and the other characters began to mix together. This explains why the U.S. version has so many names.
當歐洲人安頓好殖民地後，Saint Nick、Father Christmas及其他角色開始融合。這解釋了為什麼美國的版本有這麼多名字。
Santa Claus is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, but he's also called Saint Nick and Father Christmas and Kris Kringle which comes from Germany. In the old world these were different characters, but in the new world over time they evolved into one which you can see happening in older stories.
聖誕老人是經美國化的Sinterklaas，但他同樣也被稱為Saint Nick、Father Christmas還有從德國來的Kris Kringle。在舊世界(歐亞非大陸)這些是不同的角色，但在新世界(美洲大陸)，他們隨著時間合而為一，你可以在較古老的故事中目睹。
For example, the poem "The Night Before Christmas" came out in 1823 in New York, which established that Santa lands on the roof and fills stocking with toys. But this Santa is an elf, much like those from the Nordic Countries. He's small and drives a miniature sleigh with tiny reindeer, which makes a lot more sense for someone whose job description includes fitting down chimneys. Also, the word "Santa" appears nowhere in the poem. The original title is "A visit from Saint Nick."
As the 1800s continued, a fat, human looking immortal Santa evolved into the standard among American authors. It was in the States that he gained both his elvish workforce and a wife.
By about 1900, Santa had developed into his current iconic style. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, Coca-Cola didn't change his colors to their corporate scheme, but instead used the conveniently red-and-white Santa in 1931 to help sell more soda during their off season. Though Coke didn't create him, their omnipresent ads probably did brand this as the One True Santa in the minds of millions, helping spread him around the world to many cultures with no traditions of winter gift-givers.
This American Santa in turn influenced his relations in Northern Europe to become more like him, although not always to the pleasure of the locals. In particular, the British Father Christmas has been completely assimilated into the Santa collective, to the point where many Britons don't realize they were ever separate. In the Netherlands, however, Saint Nick is still successfully holding his own as a distinct character.
這個美國版聖誕老人反過來影響了他在北歐的親戚們，讓他們變得更像他，雖然當地人並非總是對此感到開心。特別是英國的Father Christmas已完全被聖誕老人系列給同化，以致於到了許多英國人並沒有意識到他們曾經是不同的地步。然而，在荷蘭，Saint Nick還是成功地堅持住自己與眾不同的特色。
The one last detail about modern Santa that's still up for debate, at least between countries, is exactly where he lives. In the late 1800s, his home was the magnetic North Pole, centered under the aurora borealis.
While this would be the most diplomatic option for Santa, Magnetic North has since moved off the Polar Ice Sheet and into the ocean, a rather inconvenient place to set up a toy factory.
So Canada claims his workshop is somewhere in Nunavut and has given Santa a post code and, no joke, official Canadian citizenship. The American response is that the North Pole doesn't refer to the obviously inhospitable sheet of non-domestic ice but rather to the little town of North Pole, Alaska. Denmark claims he lives in their former colony of Greenland. And Greenland, not surprisingly, agrees.
The Nordic countries quarrel about his exact location, but Finland is the clear winner of this argument with his workshop in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. For the evidence inclined, you can actually go visit Santa and see the elves, toys, reindeer and post office, which makes Finland's claim pretty strong. Santa is even available during the off-season.
But no matter where he might be based, Santa still manages to get around the world in just one night to deliver all those presents...and eat all those cookies.