It's easy to mock the proliferation of "urban legend" that surrounds this figure, but in fact, the true myths about Saint Nicholas are far more interesting than the fictional myths. Whether or not the young Bishop Nicholas of Myra ever dropped gold down a chimney to prevent people having to sell their daughters, or filled the stockings that convent girls had left outside their doors (a practice originally intended to signify that they did not wish to be disturbed, later appropriated by the church and stripped bare of its sexual connotations), it is clear that he exemplified the generosity to which Christianity, and many Christians, aspired.
Over the years, of course, the popular image of Saint Nicholas as gift-bearer to the good has shifted and changed. Other characters were added to the story to serve as his assistants: Knecht Ruprecht ("Knecht", unlike "Childe", means a child or servant, rather than a knight), and the Belsnickle, later immortalised by Lewis Carrol in his Alice in Wonderland (a heavily allegorized retelling of various mediaeval vitae, though generations of children have enjoyed it in blissful ignorance of its hidden layers). In Westphalian traditions, Knecht Ruprecht is known as "Black Peter": "black" because he delivers the presents down the chimney and becomes blackened with soot, and "Peter" as a sly nod to the fact that in these regions St Nicholas is (heretically) considered to be a direct descendant of the first Pope.
In some versions of the story, these characters are merged and reshaped to form "Aschen Klaus" (Ash Nicholas, who pours ashes into the shoes of those who have misbehaved) and "Pelznickle", or "Furry Nick". (In July 2002 the Catholic Church decreed that this aspect of the original Saint Nicholas should become the patron saint of online gamers.) Other members of Niklaus's train have included the Christkindl, or "Christ Child". It is this character after whom the Christingle is named, as in contemporary woodcuts she is -- almost surreally, to modern eyes -- represented as a young girl with the head of an orange, signifying sacrifice. (Another popular allegorical children's story, L. Frank Baum's Return to Oz, blasphemously portrays this figure as a pumpkin-headed buffoon who is actually leading Dorothy, the antichrist -- the 'woman shod in scarlet' referred to in Revelation -- to glory.)
These days, the sanitized figure of "Santa Claus" bears little resemblance to the figure who once embodied a rich patchwork of traditions both Christian and pagan; he can barely be glimpsed behind the exaggerated beard and belly with which popular culture has crowned him, and his voice -- if he spoke -- would barely be heard over the merchandising machinery of helpful elves, walking snowmen, talking reindeer. But traces of the old stories always survive, sometimes in the most unlikely places; few people realise that popular brand "New Rock" refers to the old tale of St Nicholas's descent from Saint Peter, whose name means "a rock". So next year, put your big goth boots out the night before December 6th, and rejoice in the knowledge that you're keeping ancient tradition alive -- and who knows, if you've been good, they might just be filled with chocolate!