It has long been thought that Santa Claus had his origin in the person of the obscure Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who delivered gifts or punishments (according to their behavior during the year) to Dutch children on his feast day, December 6th. The Dutch, it is felt, brought this practice to America.
However, it is not quite so simple. The Pennsylvania Germans had a character named Pelznichol with a black face, wearing old clothes or skins, carrying a whip for bad children and comestibles for good ones, who was the Christmas gift giver.
He may in origin have been the European wildman. Somewhere along the line, he probably merged with Saint Nicholas. He was, however, rather frightening. His face is described as 'hideous'.
In 1821 a publication called The Children's Friend calls him Santeclas, but this is not the first time this name appeared. In 1822 the famous poem Visit of Saint Nicholas also called The Night Before Christmas appeared and that more or less presented a complete picture of Santa Claus with his flying reindeer. This portrait was augmented by a picture by Thomas Nast published in 1863.
In Continental Europe the gift giver was often called the Christkindl (Christ Child) depicted often by a teenage girl as a sort of angel rather thatn Jesus Himself. This led to the name Kriss Kringle being sometimes applied to Santa Claus in the United States.
In England a personification of Christmas called Father Christmas appeared in the 16th Century. He was a character in Ben Jonson's Christmas Masque (1616). Persons have seen the Norse god Odin as his prototype, but there is very little evidence that Odin had remained in the English folk consciousness since the times when the Norsemen ruled the kingdom of York.
The two characters were to amalgamate. Now their names are used interchangeably in Britain. The term Santa Claus reached England in the 1870s.
Santa Claus acquired a red bobble hat in 1931 when Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom drew him wearing one for a Coca-Cola advertising campaign.