I have always had this believe that the idea of Santa Claus actually began as a continuation of the Norse Kings.
It was a common practice, in Norse lands, for the King to travel around the country and hold feasts during midwinter (roundabout Christmastime). He also would give out presents to some of the people. This always sounded suspiciously similar to Santa Claus to me.
When Christianity came this custom would basically become Christianized and ascribed to a Christian saint. This was not uncommon in the Christian conversion of Norse lands. If this is true it would show that Santa Claus, really, is the Norse King originally.
The Norse King was considered divine. He was often said to descend from a Norse god, usually Odin. In some sense, he was a priest (its interesting that the coronation ceremony of England is actually a variation of the ceremony to make a Bishop in the Catholic church, a ceremony to make a priest). As a result, he was often considered the man who helped bring the crops and supplied the people with food. This is why it was a custom for him to travel around the country and hold feasts. It was done during midwinter as this is in the middle of the season where everything was ‘dead’ and nothing grew. There were no crops or food growing. Perhaps, in some way, holding feasts during this time confirmed his influence that he helped supply the population with food?
If this is true, it shows that the original Christmas gift was food. But he often gave presents out to specific people for deeds they have performed. These could be things like gold, rings, a sword, etc. Its interesting, though, that up until after WWII the common gift of Christmas was food, often fruit. After WWII, with the high consumerism that followed, toys and other consumer products would take over greatly changing the tradition of Christmas.
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Copyright by Mike Michelsen