Santa Claus
90th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 24, 2016 in New York City.
| Credit: John Lamparski / Getty Images

When we think of Santa Claus, we picture a plump, jolly man in a red suit delivering gifts in his sleigh. However, Santa Claus' origin is surprisingly different from his widely known persona today.

The history of Santa Claus dates some 1,700 years ago to a bishop named St. Nicholas. Born in modern-day Turkey, Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly, nor was he associated with Christmas. In fact, old Nick was a bit of a rebel -- a defender of the church during the Great Persecution, when priests faced execution if they failed to renounce Christianity.

Nicholas achieved sainthood much later after becoming associated with many miracles. He was said to have saved three young girls from a life of prostitution by delivering three bags of gold to their indebted father to use for their dowries. Eventually, he became known as the protector of children and sailors and was associated with gift-giving. Physically, he was represented similarly to earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin -- white-bearded men with magical powers like flight

He remained a popular saint in Europe until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, which discouraged the practice of honoring saints. St. Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland. The Dutch celebrated the feast day of St. Nicholas on his birthday, December 6. The night before, children put out their shoes and those who were good would discover gifts left by St. Nick in the morning.

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But where did Santa come from?

The name Santa Claus evolved from Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). Dutch families brought Sinterklaas with them to the New World. At the end of the 18th century, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.

But it was a series of writers and artists who invented Santa Claus as the Christmas icon we know him as today.

In 1809, Washington Irving published his book Knickerbocker's History of New York and in it described a pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over the rooftops in a flying wagon, delivering presents to good girls and boys and switches to bad ones. Then in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" -- better known as "The Night Before Christmas" -- for his children. The story's version of the plump, jolly Santa riding a sleigh driven by eight reindeer went was published the following year and went viral.

It wasn't until the late 19th century, thanks to the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, that the image of Santa became standardized as the jolly, chubby, grandfatherly figure dressed in red with white fur trim, venturing out from the North Pole in a reindeer-driven sleigh and keeping an eye on children's behavior.