COLUMBIA, Mo 12/23/13 (North Pole) -- With Christian and pagan origins in Turkey, The Netherlands, and the USA, Santa Claus may be history's most diverse symbol of the holidays. His legend has been evolving for almost 2,000 years, changing through time as the times changed.
Though Santa started as a religious figure, his recent incarnations have included stints as Coca Cola's most famous ad man -- and the subject of two well-known books about the science and technology of Christmas.
Santa Claus, it turns out, is a man for all ages in more ways than one.
270 A.D. Santa Claus is born in the person of Nicholas of Myra, a Turkish bishop famous for gifts to the poor. Legend has it he gave enough money to create dowries for the daughters of a poor but pious parishioner to save them from a life of prostitution. Nicholas is portrayed as tall and gaunt, in a beard and long purple or green robes.
1600's. The legend of St. Nick becomes Sinterklaas, a mysterious gift giver in The Netherlands who went from house to house on horseback (no reindeer yet) leaving presents in children's shoes. The children, in turn, leave Sinterklaas snacks for his horses.
1650-1750. The story of Sinterklaas migrates to the New World via Dutch immigrants.
1773. Sinterklaas takes on the fully anglicized name Santa Claus after a New York City newspaper first uses the name.
1809. Santa Claus gets fat in Washington Irving's A History of New York. Famous for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving described Santa as a "portly" pipe smoker.
1822. A big year for the legend of Santa Claus in the U.S. Clement Moore publishes "Twas the Night Before Christmas," providing the magic sleigh, flying reindeer, toy-filled sack, and likening Santa's belly to "a bowl full of jelly."
1849. First mention of Mrs. Claus in the short story, A Christmas Legend by James Rees.
1862. Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast draws Santa for Harper's Weekly as a small, Union-supporting elf.
1865-1895. Nast draws Santa in a variety of coats, from tan to red.
1890. First department store Santa Claus created when James Edgar wears a Santa suit at his Brockton, Massachusetts store. Over 25,000 department store and "renta Santas" work the Christmas season today.
1920. Santa Claus appears in Coca Cola ads for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.
1930. Artist Fred Mizen paints the first department-store Santa, drinking a Coke in a Famous Barr store.
1931. Santa dons his now-famous red and white suit in ad illustrations by Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola. Red and white are Coke's corporate colors. Sundblom used his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman, as the model for Santa.
1992. Science writer Roger Highfield brings science to Santa with Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas.
Highfield calculates that Santa must visit roughly 842 million homes over 221 million miles on Christmas Eve, which requires him to travel 1,800 miles per second. If he eats every snack left for him, he will consume 71,764,000,000 calories.
For the really nerdy Santa fans, he will carry roughly 461,300 tons of toys on Christmas Eve pulled by reindeer that have to generate enough power to boil 210,000,000,000,000,000 (210 quadrillion) teapots.
Highfield followed up with The Physics of Christmas in 1999.