A number of Midwinter or Christmas traditions in European folklore involve gift-bringers. Mostly involving the figure of a bearded old man, the traditions have mutually influenced one another, and have adopted aspects from Christian hagiography, even before the modern period. In Eastern Slavic countries, the figure is Father Frost. In Scandinavia, it is an elf-like figure or tomten who comes at Yule (and who sometimes also takes the form of a goat). In German-speaking Europe and Latin Europe, it became associated with the Christian Saint Nicholas. In some parts of Central Europe, there is a separate tradition of a young child or fairy-like being bringing presents, known as Christkind. Early modern England had Father Christmas, a character initially associated with feasting and good cheer, though he was not originally a gift bringer.
From these European traditions, the North American figure of Santa Claus developed, beginning in the 1820s. The American figure in turn had considerable influence on the various European traditions during the 19th and 20th centuries. In England, for example, Father Christmas gradually took on the attributes of the American Santa Claus during the 19th century, the two characters eventually becoming indistinguishable.
The origin of the Christian gift-bringer figures in European folklore are clearly pre-Christian, more specifically connected with the Yule (midwinter) festival in Germanic paganism, and are often associated with the figure of Odin (Wodanaz), the leader of the Wild Hunt at the time of Yule.
Santa Claus's reindeer has also been compared to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin in Norse mythology.
Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) traces the threatening or scary companions of Saint Nicholas (such as the Krampus of the Austro-Bavarian dialect region) to Christianized versions of household spirits (kobolds, elves).
After Christianization, the benign mid-winter gift-bringer was associated with the 4th-century Christian Saint Nicholas of Myra. This association took place mainly in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, including German-speaking Europe, the Low Countries, the Czech lands, Hungary and Slovenia. The basis of this association is that Saint Nicholas was noted for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.
There are numerous traditions of Christmas gift-bringers in European folklore. They can be loosely classified in variations of an "Old Man" (Old Man Winter, Father Christmas), and a "child" or "girl" tradition. The "Old Man" is frequently syncretised with the hagiographical traditions of Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil.
In some countries, many traditions can co-exist. In Italy, for example, there are Babbo Natale ("Father Christmas", a local version of Santa Claus) and the Befana, a witch-like old lady that rides a broomstick and brings candies on Epiphany's eve. In some areas of Northern Italy (Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lodi, Mantova, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Verona, Trento, Udine) there is Santa Lucia, a veiled blind old woman who on December 13 brings gifts to children, riding a donkey that tows a cart, accompanied by her helper Castaldo or Castaldòn. In other areas there is Gesù bambino ("Child Jesus"), and in many parts of Switzerland and northeastern Italy (east of the Piave (river)), Saint Nicholas is also celebrated on December 6.