Most families don't give a second thought to where the ideas and mythologies of Santa Claus became what it is today.
Growing up, I was a huge fanatic of Santa Claus. Having my birthday in the same week as Christmas meant that I had a "combo gift" from my friends and family. Santa was was the only one that gave me a gift only for Christmas, so he had a special place in my childhood.
Although my parents were not very familiar with the American Santa Claus story, through friends and media, I became well acquainted with how the system worked - leave out cookies and milk, go to sleep, and if I was a good boy, I should have a neatly wrapped gift from Santa under the tree when I wake up in the morning.
No matter who I talk to (at least in my community), there is little to no variances to this understanding. We all love him, and he is never depicted in an evil way, right? I thought so too, until I started going to church.
There was a boxing match of sorts. The church (or a church, if what I heard from the pulpit was a unique case) threw in two characters into the ring that were never meant to fight each other. Jesus versus Santa. The reason was simple - Santa is robbing Jesus' spotlight during the Christmas season.
This got me curious, and I began to look into the lore of Santa Claus. I even preached a sermon on this, and received emails for more information. So, I wanted to share some of my findings here. Since Santa is based off of a 4th Century character, there aren't many "official" documentations, so your research may bring some conflicting informations than mine, but it shouldn't be too far off.
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in the 300s. He was influenced by Jesus' teachings which was passed on to him by his parents (who died to an epidemic) and his uncle (a priest) who raised him. Nicolas was rich due to the inheritance from his parents, but his community was poor.
As the story goes, he would sneak out in the middle of the night to drop small bags of gold in the homes of the poor. The famous story is when he left three bags of gold for a man who lost everything and could not afford his three daughters' dowry. The man had no choice but to send his daughters away into prostitution. However, due to Nicolas' generosity (the bags Nicholas tossed somehow landed in the socks that was out drying over the fire), the daughters were able to get married.
He was eventually was given the title of "Saint" (long after his death). The legend spread throughout Europe, and everyone celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas day, which is December 6th. On the eve of this day, children will set out their shoes in hopes of receiving a special gift. Parents would often fill these shoes with candy and gifts.
When the Protestant Reformation happened in the 16th Century, Martin Luther and many other leaders realized that it is not biblical to have a special office of "saint." So, they threw out all the saints (which many commoners had no problems). However, when the leaders decided to toss out the feasts and celebrations attached to the saints, the people had some hesitations. They wanted to hold on to some of the traditions, such as the St. Nicholas Day celebrations.
Once these feasts were brought to an end, the commoners found interesting ways of reincorporating these traditions. Since St. Nicholas Day was so close to Christmas, that was the obvious cover.
In England, the commoners claimed that the children were not putting their shoes (or stockings) out for St. Nick, but for "Father Christmas." In Germany, the people claimed that they were celebrating Christmas with the anticipation of the Christ Child or Christ Kindle (or what we call today, Kris Kringle). In the Netherlands, the legend of St. Nick was combined with the mythology of Odin, who rode on horses in the clouds and had black ravens perch on chimneys to find out and report whether the family has been good or nice and was called Sinterklaas. Overtime, the horse became a sled and reindeer, the ravens became Sinterklaas' personal assistants called Zwarte Piet.
When the Dutch came to New York, local publishers observed the local immigrant community celebrate Sinterklaas and wrote a small pamphlet with a character called Old Santeclaus. This character was eventually used in a poem called 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. And the rest is history!
Sure, the Santa story is no substitute for the Nativity story we find in Matthew and Luke. But, did you know that St. Nick found his inspiration to pursue a ministry lifestyle when he visited Bethlehem? He was moved by the generosity of God the Father giving away His Son for the sake of those who were sick and poor.
The point of this quick and oversimplified history lesson is that I don't believe Santa to be in competition with Jesus. The spirit that runs through history and this mythology is the heart of generosity that St. Nick displayed in Myra. Over the years, Santa may have been given different names, various physiques, interesting modes of transportations, and numerous traditions, but they all point back to the good deeds of a man who served Jesus through serving his community. If anything, Santa is pointing to Jesus.