For 2,000 years, St. Nicholas has endured extreme makeovers almost every century. His timeline is so convoluted, his mother would not recognize him.

For 2,000 years, St. Nicholas has endured extreme makeovers almost every century. His timeline is so convoluted, his mother would not recognize him.

One would never suspect the origin of Santa Claus to be linked to Nicholas. He was a gaunt figure with little hair. His beard was scraggly, his eyes shifty.

We cannot even agree on his name. He’s Kris Kringle in some countries, St. Nick in others and, worldwide, known as Santa Claus, the Father of Christmas.

Clement Moore’s epic poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823 attempted to set a depiction of Santa for once and for all. He is a jolly old elf with a jelly belly. It took another century for that to stick. (Moore’s poem became “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He made millions on it.)

Gathering attention

Nicholas has been a media maven. It started with the Victorian Santa in the mid-1800s whose image for the first time graced cards, books and magazines.

As a Victorian, he is a very formal character, certainly not a jolly old elf. He is strikingly royal with the face of a rich aristocrat. Not an inch of fat on this one.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Kris Kringle in the 1850s was depicted as a severe, thin man with a hook nose peering out of a red-wool hoodie. His beard is a frightening tangle, and his piercing eyes are set on disciplining bad little girls and boys. This is how the coal in the stocking thing began. Kringle appears on the verge of something violent. He needs professional help.

Help was on the way. Santa was set for two precedent-setting changes.

Benjamin Handy, a student at Otterbein College in Ohio, in 1861 penned the carol “Up on a Housetop.” This gave Santa his slogan, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Illustrator Thomas Nast two years later took yet another stab at defining Santa. His Nick is ludicrous, looking like all of the rest of his crazy characters. He’s a pregnant-fat, tobacco-inhaling lout, too chubby for any chimney. Among his presents for the kiddies is a Union Army sword. After all, it was during the Civil War.

Nast did set some standards for the beard and belly, if not the gassy face.

By the turn of the century, our hero was an exceptionally kind looking man of massive benevolence. He is a soft, humble saint, for the first time. He was the first Santa you’d entrust your child to sit on his lap.

It took another 30 years for the roots of our modern-day Santa Claus to appear. Again, it was the media; this time, the advertising guys. Haddon Sunblom merged all the Moore and Handy characteristics and added a glass of Coca Cola.

Coke Santa

In 1931, his first of many Coke Santa ads appeared, in the Saturday Evening Post. If not the Coke, the Claus was a sensation. Finally, there was universal agreement.

Santa was still fat, but not distressingly so. His ruby cheeks came from the cold rides from the North Pole, not Nast’s booze bottle. His uniform fit nicely for the first time, and he lost the scary hoodie. He actually looks happily benign.

The world latched onto Sunblom’s Santa, along with his soft drink. Here was a Santa all could embrace, especially advertisers. Santa products assumed rage proportions in the 1930s, starting with Christmas ornaments and figurines and moving into mundane items, including milk mugs, napkins, candles, knee socks and, in the 1960s, Santa soap.

Still, there’s nothing elf-like about him. The elves work for him, but he towers over them. There’s still the problem for the bad little girls and boys, but at least this time, their lives are not threatened.

We love Santa, even though he has his own crass knockoffs. One wonders how he will look in 100 years -- perhaps a computer-generated hologram that comes down the chimney with electronic gift cards to the last remaining store, Wal-Mart.

Despite all his travails, the only tragedy to Santa rests in his namesake. Imagine the joy in the original St. Nicholas’ household had he the foresight to trademark his name and all of the renditions that followed. Oh the royalties, oh the tribute.

OK, let St. Nicholas sleep in heavenly peace.

The Repository (Canton, Ohio)