Fat, jolly and bearded and clad in a familiar red suit, Santa Claus is a familiar holiday symbol to nearly everyone. But who is this man really and how did he become such an ingrained holiday symbol?
In the seventeenth century, Santa, in the form of St. Nicholas, first came to America with Dutch immigrants. While he was a kind man who left treats for children he didn't much resemble the fat man in the red suit we know today. In early folklore, Santa also rode a white horse though the sky and Santa was thought to be a symbol of the Pagan Holly King (see links below for the Origins of Yule for more details).
The American image of Santa Claus comes from a combination of images from the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas) written in 1822 by Dr. Clement C. Moore and from cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Moore was influenced by the earlier writings of Washington Irving, where the first mention of Santa's sleigh and reindeer appear. While Clement Moore's Santa was a tiny elf-like creature, 19th century American cartoonist Thomas Nast did a series of Christmas drawings for Harper's Weekly around the same period. It was there that the fat, rosy cheeked, bearded Santa made his debut and Americans have envisioned him that way ever since.