We always think of Santa Claus as an incredibly old man—positively ancient—but the fact is, he’s exactly 150-years-old, born in 1863. Indeed, we might be thinking of Santa’s predecessor St. Nicholas, who is far older, believed to have been a Turkish Greek bishop in the 300s. But the first European winter gift-bringer is even more of a geezer, going back to ancient Germanic paganism and the Norse god Odin. When he wandered the earth, the deity disguised himself as a bearded old man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and cloak and carrying a traveler’s staff. He looked a lot like Gandalf the Gray in “Lord of the Rings.”
The gift-bringer showed up during the 12-day winter festival known as Yule, where it was a tradition to burn a whole tree, from bottom up. (This evolved into the smaller “Yule log” we know today.) Children would leave hay in their shoes for Odin’s eight-legged horse and find it replaced with treats the next day. As Europe became Christianized, these beliefs were absorbed into the Christian faith, and St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6, was bestowed with the gift-bringer mythology.