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The popular and familiar round man in red is called a variety of names all round the world, with different cultures having their own story and origin of Santa Claus. Despite his range of names, the underlying nature of his purpose is universally the same and he remains the epitome of Christmas for so many all over the globe.
The origin - Saint Nicholas
The most common history for the origin of Santa Claus is believed to be the story of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop born around 250AD. Known for his anonymous yet generous gift giving to the poor, his story has evolved and now St Nicholas Day is celebrated in many western countries. Over centuries, the legend has progressed and on the 6th December, Saint Nicholas would slope down from the sky on his donkey or white horse and enter the houses through the chimneys in order to deliver gifts to well behaved children. Gift giving and feasting are the tradition and children may even leave out their shoes in the hope to find coins in them the following morning. Father Christmas connotes the British version of the St Nicholas story which dates back to the reign of Henry VIII and characterising the spirit of Christmas. This characterisation was also revived when Queen Victoria promoted German traditions from her consort Albert which include the first Christmas tree under which presents magically appeared overnight.
Saint Nicholas pronounced in Dutch can be phonetically spelt ‘Sinterklaas’, originating from Dutch settlers in New York and the name undertook an intermingling of the two cultures. The gift giving stems from the Magi or the Three Wise Men who visited the birth of Christ whilst celebrations take place on the 5th and 6th December with the Feast of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas does not have any religious connotations nowadays as many Dutch of all backgrounds and ages celebrate it.
The Yule goat was originally a spirit associated with the Norse god Odin who demanded gifts and leftovers from the feasts and knocked down doors. Today, in combination with modern day Santa Claus, the Joulupukki goes round each house asking “are there any well behaved children here?” before giving out gifts. Unlike modern day Santa however, the Joulupukki drives a sleigh pulled by reindeers but one that doesn’t fly.
The Finnish Yule Goat
Tomte or Jultomten, Sweden
Originating from Swedish folklore, Tomte is a traditionally dwarf-like creature. An adult family member on Christmas dresses up as Jultomten and will ask “are there any good children who live here?” before delivering his sack of presents.
Based on Saint Nicholas, The Julenisse originates from Scandinavian folklore about ‘Nisse’, a short, plump creature with a red hat and long white beard and is a patron saint of seamean and children. It has long been believed and especially during the 1800s, that each home has their own Nisse who aids with daily chores in return for respect in the family, epitomised as a bowl of “julegrøt” which is Christmas porridge and served with extra butter on Christmas Eve. Julenisse is known for his kindness towards children and so many even leave out a bowl of Christmas porridge for when he visits to hide presents around the house.
Père Noël, France
Père Noël is an American equivalent who gives presents to children who have been good throughout the year. Pre Fouettard is his sidekick who helps keep track of all the children and who has been naughty or nice. Père Noël’s traditional appearance only dates back to the early twentieth century.
Also known as Nickel, Klaus or Niglo, depending on the region,Der Weihnachtsmann delivers the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve by slipping in and out of the house as not to be seen by children. However, Nikolaus (Saint Nicholas) is a different person and is celebrated on the 6th December on St Nicholas Day.
St Nikolaus also delivers gifts to good children on the 6th December (St Nicholas Day) whilst Christkind delivers presents to good children on Christmas Eve and symbolises newborn Christ with golden hair and wings.
Los Reyes Magos, Spain
Good children in Spain are visited by three figures who deliver presents on the day the three wise men or magi reached baby Jesus also known as El Dia De Reyes. During the days leading up to the El Dia De Reyes, children in Hispanic countries write letters to their favourite wise man or mago, either Melchor, Gaspar or Baltasar, asking for gifts. At night, children leave out sweets for magi and hay for the magi’s camels, whilst leaving their shoes out in the hope that the following day the offerings will be presents instead.
Los Reyes Magos
La Befana, Italy
La Befana was a good witch who flew by broomstick and has been part of Italian folklore since the eighth century. The story involves the three wise men who come to La Befana’s house on Christmas Eve during their journey to newborn Christ. La Befana gave the wise men shelter and in return they asked her to join them to see Jesus. La Befana declined their offer but changed her mind later on and attempted to catch up with the magi. But she failed and never found her way to Bethlehem and now each night on the 5th January, the Eve of the Epiphany, she flies over Italy delivering gifts to good children and coal for naughty children.
Dedt Moroz, Russia
The connotations of gift giving has derived from a legend of a woman with two stepdaughters. One daughter was wicked and the other was good. One day she threw the good girl outside in the cold and soon Dedt Moroz of Father Ice appeared on his sleigh. The girls kindness greatly impressed Dedt Moroz and he gifted her diamonds as a result. When the stepmother heard about this, she threw the wicked daughter outside also but Dedt Moroz disliked her wicked nature and turned her into ice. Just like the nature of Santa, Dedt Moroz gives gifts to good children.
Like Santa in which he carries a sack over his back, but Hoteiosho is a Buddhist monk. He has eyes at the back of his head to know when children are being naughty or nice. Christian Japanese only make up 1% of the population and Christmas Day does not mark a day spent with family or eating roast Turkey for them. Instead, they spend time helping others.
Hoteiosho, Father Christmas in Japan
Mikulás is Hungary’s equivalent to St Nicholas. Children will leave a boot on their windowsill in the hope that they will receive gifts from Mikulás. The good children will receive candies, fruits and toys, whilst bad children will find nothing more than a wooden spoon in their boot.
Papai Noel, Brazil
Summer time in Brazil means Papi Noel is dressed in a silk outfit so he is cool. Children will set out shoes before they go to bed on Christmas Eve in the hope that when they awaken the next morning their shoes will be filled with presents. Children will also hunt for presents hidden around their home.
Santa Claus, USA
Santa Claus’s name derives from the Dutch Sinterklaas when during the seventeenth century, an influx of Dutch settlers in New York evolved the name. Before 1931, Santa Claus was denoted as a spooky looking elf in a bishop's robe. But when the Coca Cola Company began its Christmas adverts in the 1920 and devloped this into magazine advertisements in 1931, the advertisements completely shaped the way Santa Claus was depicted and has shaped how we view him today.
Santa Claus Coca Cola Ad
- Dyado Koleda, Bulgaria
- Christkindl, Switzerland
- Queen Mab, Canada
- Jolasveinarnir, Iceland
- Daidína Nollag, Ireland
- Swiety Mikolaj, Poland
- Noel Baba, Turkey
- Aba Chaghaloo, Afghanistan
- Babadimiri, Albania
- Gaghant Baba, Armenia
- Deda Mraza, Bosnia
- Viejo Pascuero, Chile
- Dun Che Lao Ren, China
- Papa Noël, Egypt
- Kanakaloka, Hawaii
- Baba Noel, Iraq
- Father Christmas, Jamaica
- Kaledu Senelia, Lithuania
- Dedo Mraz, Macedonia
- Deda Mraz, Serbia
- San Niklaw, Malta
- El Niñito Dios, Mexico
- Moss Cracium, Romania
- Vader Kersfees, South Africa