As all "kids from one to ninety-two" start the long wait for Santa, attention turns to his traditional home at the North Pole. From ancient times, this region has been seen as a kind of heaven within the Arctic Circle: a perfect country on the axis of the world. Here the sun never quite goes down, and everything is spiritually pure and close to the next life. Yet the original Santa Claus didn't live at the North Pole at all. His home was in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, where he was bishop of Myra. He led such a good life that he was eventually declared a saint of the Christian faith.
St Nicholas of Myra, as he came to be called, lived in the fourth century. He was renowned for his generosity and kindness, particularly to children, and was always willing to give gifts to people in need of help. There are stories of him bringing murdered children back to life, and rescuing sailors in storms. These have resulted in him being named patron saint of children and sailors, among many other things.
Nicholas could also be a tough and uncompromising character: he is said to have knocked another bishop unconscious after an argument at a religious council ended in a punch-up. In the late 1950s measurements of his bones were taken during an investigation of his grave in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. A forensic examination of these measurements in 2005 proved that, as well as being unusually short for his time, Nicholas had had a broken nose.
But one of the best-known stories about him is far more peaceful. It concerns a rich man in Myra who became depressed after his wife's death and wasted his fortune, so that his three daughters had no money to offer as dowries to future husbands. It looked as though they faced a lonely and dangerous life, as women who could not support themselves - until Nicholas, their bishop, stepped in to help. He was determined to remain anonymous, not only for his own modesty's sake, but because he did not want to humiliate the troubled family.
One night, Nicholas went to the nobleman's house and dropped three purses of gold coins down the chimney. As the three sisters had just hung up their stockings to dry over the fire, the money fell into them. The tradition of hanging up Christmas stockings for Santa to fill, not to mention the story of Santa entering houses down the chimney, began with this tale about Nicholas of Myra.
Nicholas's readiness to give gifts in secret meant he often put presents into needy people's shoes if they left them out for him. This started the tradition of children leaving shoes out by the fireplace for the visit of their patron, St Nicholas, on the night before his feastday of 6 December. If the children have been good during the year, they find sweets or a small gift in the shoes the next morning. This custom lives on in many European countries, including Germany, Austria and Poland. But it is especially important in Holland, where, by the thirteenth century, St Nicholas was widely known as Sinterklaas - a name that has developed over time into 'Santa Claus'.
Traditionally, St Nicholas wears a red bishop's outfit, and is accompanied by a sinister 'helper' who threatens to punish misbehaving children, such as Knecht Ruprecht or 'Servant Ruprecht', in Germany, or, in Austria, the devilish Krampus. There were other gift-bringers: during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century that the day for giving gifts was moved to Christmas Eve in many countries, while the figure of St Nicholas was replaced by the Christ Child, or, in Germany, Christkindl. In these countries, which include Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the belief is that Santa Claus makes the toys for the Christ Child to distribute on Christmas Eve night.
In Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico, the Christmas gift-bringers are the Three Kings, and they visit on the night before the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Gifts in Italy also come on the night before the Epiphany, but they are delivered by La Befana, a spirit in the form of an old woman, who gives presents to all good children after losing her way as she tried to bring gifts to the Christ Child on the first Christmas.
The significance of Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus, spread to America: the city of New York was originally a Dutch colonial city called Nieuw Amsterdam, and its founders brought their Christmas traditions with them. After the American Revolution against English rule, Santa Claus became important as a symbol of the non-English roots of one of the most powerful cities developing in America, and in 1809 the New York Historical Society named "Sancte Claus" as the patron saint of the city. He was portrayed in bishop's robes at first, like St Nicholas, but over the late nineteenth century the cartoonist Thomas Nast developed the image of Santa Claus we would recognise now: wearing a robe and fur, but less obviously religious.
Despite the early rejection of England, this new understanding of Santa Claus also came to owe a lot to the figure known in England as Father Christmas. The belief in this hearty, bearded man, who wore green robes and urged everyone to be merry and enjoy themselves at holiday time, was first recorded in seventeenth-century England as people resisted the Puritans' efforts to ban Christmas celebrations. He probably originated in the figure of the pagan Norse god Odin, who was worshipped at the old Norse winter festival of Yuletide, and is also connected with the Finnish Joulupukki and the Swedish Jultomten.
Father Christmas appears as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens's 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, spreading Christmas cheer with such determination that he even convinces the antisocial Scrooge that Christmas is a joyful family holiday. As Father Christmas and St Nicholas fused into the modern Santa Claus, the colour of his outfit changed from green to red. The image of Santa in red coat and black boots with a white beard was established in 1930, when it was first used to advertise Coca-Cola in America.
The journey from Turkey to the North Pole, via Coca-Cola and New Amsterdam, is one that would be challenging even for Santa's sleigh. While the proof of Nicholas of Myra's existence is as detailed as the measurement of his broken nose, there is no certainty that some element of that saint really lives on in that mysterious region of the world, and visits all children on Christmas Eve night. However, from the same uncertainty comes a magic that no child should be without at Christmas. As New York journalist Francis Pharsellus Church wrote on the subject in 1897, "the most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see."