In any case, the Santa Clause image appeared in America in the 19th century but didn't take off until the 20th. Washington Irving used this image in this fiction, and Clement C. Moore--a friend of Irving's--practically invented the standard description with "A Visit From Saint Nicholas." In Moore's poem, Santa has a "broad face and a little round belly/That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly/He was chubby and plump." He also smokes. Moore additionally named Santa's reindeer (although Rudolf wasn't added until 1920).
Despite Irving and Moore, the man who really popularized the Santa Clause image in America was Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator. (By the way, both Irving and Moore also have German, or rather Dutch connections. As you can see below, there are distinct differences between the British or Celtic Father Christmas and the German Father Christmas.) Nast created his illustrations for Harper's Weekly (amongst other magazines) between 1860 to 1890. As well as Santa Clause, Nast is responsible for the donkey and the elephant as Democrat and Republican symbols; Nast is definitely an example of "high" or at least medium culture seeping into the lore of a nation. Rather impressive influence for one guy!
The Nast/Moore/American image of Santa is different from British versions: for a comparison, check out Lewis' description of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and see the images below. However, like Nast and unlike Moore, Lewis makes no overt attempt to associate Father Christmas with St. Nicholas. The connection has pretty much disappeared these days although it remains in books and on blogs explaining the origin of Christmas symbols. Unlike the Thanksgiving-Mayflower story, there would probably not be a Santa without a St. Nicholas first, but Santa, in this day and age, has gained his own image and persona.
There are many folk stories and performances surrounding Santa, the most prevalent being that children should be allowed to believe in Santa as long as possible. Pretending Santa exists is a deliberate, hmmm, fib that kind parents allow their children to believe for the sake of the holiday.
And I sort of see it. Except when I don't. Believing in Santa, at least for me, wasn't exactly the same as believing in, say, aliens. (Aliens might be out there.) I asked my mom if Santa was real when I was about five. Some kids at the bus stop had told me he wasn't. I already knew the answer, so when she reluctantly said, "No," I didn't have a fit and start crying. I went, "Oh, okay."
On the other hand, it would have been nice if I could have believed some jolly, rich, old uncle was paying for the gifts under the Christmas tree. I was the kind of kid who felt guilty about everything (and I mean, everything) and naturally, the money my parents spent on my gifts got added to the list.
On the other other hand, I can't imagine pushing the idea of Santa Clause very hard. People in my childhood household talked about Santa, we selected gifts for our Santa lists from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and I put out milk and cookies (although that was really more of a joke), but my parents never presented Santa as an actual possibility. "Santa" always seemed to be said in inverted commas. Even before my fifth year, I never believed in a North Pole hide-out or reindeer or a guy sliding down the chimney. I didn't not believe. I just didn't have any reason to believe (other than the guilt thing).
Do kids believe? Or do they really know, in their heart of hearts, that Santa is Mum & Dad? Do parents still spin elaborate tales about Santa's time traveling abilities? Or has Santa become an image and only an image: have your picture taken with the red-coated symbol?
Literary/Popular Appearances: Clement C. Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" naturally. Grinch in How The Grinch Stole Christmas wears the traditional Santa Clause outfit. The awesome Bones' episode "The Santa in the Slush" uses multiple red-coated Santas, and there's a very funny Due South episode where a number of Santas, reindeer, and Elvises ("I said elves, you fools! ELVES!") wander around the police station.
On a far more literary note, Tolkien wrote and illustrated Letters to Father Christmas. Tolkien's Father Christmas (to the left) is more German than British/ Celtic (to the right). There's also the hilarious William Dean Howells' story "Christmas Every Day," although the main character there is a Christmas Fairy rather than Santa Clause. And I mustn't forget the famous editorial: "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Clause" by Francis Pharcellus Church.
Whatever the image--symbolic or decorative--Santa adds a lot to the festivities!