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The insider's guide to Santa Claus

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(CNN) -- This weekend saw Toronto's annual Santa Claus Parade, one of the largest events of its kind in the world. With Christmas fast approaching, and overweight men with big beards and fur-trimmed red trousers enjoying their brief yearly window of social acceptability, we tell you everything you need to know about Santa and his festive grotto.

Come on, Santa Claus isn't real.

Yes he is! He is, I tell you!

Grow up! It's your mum and dad who leave presents under the Christmas tree.

No it's not! It's Santa Claus and Rudolph, who fly all the way from the North Pole to reward well-behaved children with Playstations and iPods and an all-areas back-stage pass for the X-Factor Live Tour 2007. Mum and dad would never be that generous.

OK, OK! Let's say for argument that there is this big fat guy who flies around the world leaving presents....

Lots of presents. Expensive ones.

....this big fat guy who flies around the world leaving obscene piles of ludicrously overpriced gifts, why do we call him Santa Claus?

The name derives from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," which is in turn a contraction of "Sint Nicolaas" or Saint Nicholas.

Who?

Saint Nicholas is one of the most popular of all Christian saints. Although precise details are unclear, it seems he was born sometime around 280 AD in Patara in modern-day Turkey, and, after entering the priesthood at the age of 17, subsequently became Bishop of Myra (where his body remained until it was stolen by Italian merchants in 1087). The subject of many legends, Nicholas gained widespread renown for his love children, and his great generosity towards those less well-off than himself.

Was he fat?

Unfortunately neither photography nor Body Mass Index testing had been invented in Nicholas' day so we have no way of knowing for sure what he looked like. According to the fashions of the time, however, it is almost certain that he would have been bearded, while his red, fur-trimmed Bishop's cloak provided the template for the traditional Santa costume. If you want to find out more about Nicholas try reading The Life of St. Nicholas, a 10th Century biography written by the catchily-named Symeon Logothete the Metaphrast. His feast day was celebrated on December 6th, until it was dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar in 1969.

And he's the only basis for Santa Claus?

Not exactly. Obviously St. Nicholas provided the character with its name and, as described above, basic personality traits. Many other traditions, however, have also contributed to the jovial, bearded, benefactor we so associate with Christmas. Ancient pagan deities such as Befana (a gift-giving Roman goddess); the Holly King (a Celtic Winter god); and Thor and Tomte (Norse gods who, respectively, rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by goats and gave presents to children at the end of the year) have all fed into the Santa legend. Perhaps most important is Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, a legendary Russian figure with a long beard and red robes who travels from house to house on a sleigh leaving presents for children.

So how did all these different traditions coalesce into the Santa Claus we know and love?

Although the roots of Santa Claus go way back in time, the popular image of a jolly fat bearded figure lumbering along with a sackful of presents actually originates from 19th Century America. In his "History of New York," published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, author Washington Irvine provides the first recognizable modern description of Santa Claus, a description that was expanded in the 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore. It was illustrator Thomas Nash, however, who once and for all established Santa's physiognomy (obese) and domicile (in a cabin at the North Pole) in a series of illustrations for Harper's Magazine, published from the 1860's to the 1880's. Rudolph the Reindeer didn't appear until 1939, dreamed up by an advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward company.

So Santa Claus as we know him today is ultimately an American construct?

To a large extent yes, which is probably why almost everywhere else in the world the character is more popularly known as Father Christmas -- or translations of it such as Pere Noel (France), Baba Chaghaloo (Afghanistan) and Pai Natal (Portugal). It might essentially be the same person with the same appearance and characteristics, but at least by calling him something different you're ensuring that the Yanks don't get all the credit!

And you still maintain that he's real?

He most certainly is. And anyone who denies it will not only get no Christmas presents, but have their toenails pulled out by Santa's elves. Never forget, even jolly fat men have their dark side.


Santa Claus

Santa hands out the presents

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