Tracing Santa's Roots

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AP / CBS

Santa Claus is, of course, a familiar figure, especially at this time of year. We see him in advertisements, movies, and on TV shows. We sometimes even meet him in person.

But where did Santa come from?

CBS News Correspondent Russ Mitchell looked into it, for CBS News Sunday Morning.

The man Americans know as Santa goes by many names, Mitchell points out. He visits countless places, traveling in mysterious ways. He's a man of a thousand faces.

In Germany, he's "Kris Kringle." In France, he goes by "Pere Noel." Russians call him "Father Frost."

And as of Sunday morning, Santa's not only finished a trip around the world, he's completed a voyage 1,700 years in the making.

It started around 280 A.D., when a boy was born in the town of Patara, part of modern-day Turkey. Orphaned as a child, the boy devoted his life to charity and became a bishop in the early Christian Church. History knows him as St. Nicholas.

Over the centuries, Nicholas' story inspired gift-giving traditions across Europe, and it's from the Dutch pronunciation of his name, "Sinter Klaw-us," that our "Santa Claus" is derived.

But the Santa mysteries don't stop there.

"One of the questions people always have for Santa Claus," says Fort Worth, Texas journalist Jeff Guinn, "is, how can he deliver presents all over the world in one night? And the answer is: He doesn't."

In his "The Autobiography of Santa Claus," Guinn provides the answers to some timeless Claus-related questions.

"In some places," Guinn explains, "St. Nicholas brings his gifts on Dec. 6, which is St. Nicholas' day in the Catholic Church. In others, he'll bring gifts on Epiphany, Jan. 6, because legend has it that's the day the wise men gave their gifts to the baby Jesus. And when you hear people talk about the 12 days of Christmas … they're talking about those days from Dec. 25, Christmas day, through January 6, Epiphany."

But just how was a Turkish-born saint transformed into a famous symbol of Christmas?