'He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot ... His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry ... He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.'

The lines above are from a poem called A Visit from St Nicholas written by Clement C Moore in1822, although it did not become well known until it was depicted in a series of engravings by Thomas Nast in the 1860s. By the Edwardian period, it was almost universally accepted as the definitive description of this important representative of Christmas.

But do these words describe Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas or Santa Claus? There were several forerunners to this chubby, elderly gentleman with a snowy beard. The Norse God Odin was one of the early figures, who rode through the winter world, bringing either gifts or punishments, as appropriate.

Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak, and had a long white beard. Because he was able to read hidden thoughts and watch from afar the behaviour of those he visited, he was both loved and feared. A much later figure was the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, also known as Saint Nicholas, famous for his kindness to children and generosity to the poor. After the Bishop died, the legend of Saint Nicholas grew and he is still remembered in some countries on 6 December.

In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer. In the 19th century, his role changed to something more like that of the European Saint Nicholas. At about the same time, Dutch emigrants took the story of a legendary gift-bringer called 'Sinterklaas' to America, where he eventually became known as Santa Claus.

The names may be different, but there were enough similarities between all these symbolic personages to allow, by the early 20th century, Father Christmas, Santa, St Nick and others to merge. And the resulting 'right jolly old elf' is now the universally recognized symbol of Christmas.

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