Image © www.thecoca-colacompany.com
Today is St. Nicholas in Central Europe and just a minute ago I heard him pass by outside, ringing his bell going from door to door. No kidding. But be aware: The white-bearded man depicted above is not St. Nicholas. It is Santa Claus, one of his ancestors.
St. Nicholas himself seems to be a descendant of the Germanic people's god Odin who used to fill children's boots with carrots, straw or sugar long before St. Nicholas appeared on the scene. Odin visited the country on a flying horse, whereas St. Nikolaus walks by these days or rides on a toboggan. He is accompanied by Krampus, the bad cop, who is bullying those kids that do not obey ;)
The Dutch name for St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas and in order to obtain a similar pronunciation in English, you have to transform the spelling to Santa Claus.
It was until the late 19th Century that Santa Claus showed up in various uniforms and colors (St. Nicholas in Germany actually wears a bishop's dress with a crozier and a mitre) until Thomas Nast from Harper's Weekly dressed him all in fur (mainly in red already). Red of course was a perfect corporate identity fit for a 1931 Coca-Cola ad campaign, repeated year after year into the 60s.
On December 6, German, Austrian, and Swiss kids wait for little presents in their shoes or St. Nicholas and Krampus to show up in person. St. Nicholas then holds a little speech concerning last year's goals and achievements, end-year review so to speak. Depending on the success, a little present might show up or ...
... for those whose past year wasn't up to their parent's expectations, Krampus comes into play and menaces to carry away the culprits in his sack. These days that is fortunately an empty threat in almost all cases, whereas during Odin's time Germanic kids were actually eaten instantly or kept in the sack for being eaten later. At least that is what the early folk tales tell ...
In order to receive the complete spectrum of presents, European kids have to wait until Christmas eve as well. It is the Christ as a child himself depositing the gifts below the tree. St. Nicholas or Santa Claus are not involved then - except in American movies on TV during the public holidays or the weeks before.
[Update December 26: Read Seth Godin!]