North America & other countries
The very merry Santa Claus is probably the most iconic embodiment of the Christmas spirit around, or at least it seems that way in the Western World. With countless carols, stories and movies depicting him in different ways, millions of children know he’s a pretty important guy when it comes to the holidays. Ol’ Saint Nick goes by many aliases as well, depending on the country. Since Christmas is a predominantly Christian holiday, Santa’s popularity — as well as the likelihood of there being a Christmas Spirit like him — is mainly found in countries and regions with high Christian populations.
Names for Santa Claus in other languages and places include:
Papai Noel – Brazil
Dun Che Lao Ren – China
Weihnachtsmann – Germany
Kanakaloka – Hawaii
Julenissen – Norway
Naththal Seeya – Sri Lanka
THE YULE LADS
In Iceland, 13 figures known as the Yule Lads or Yulemen appear during the last 13 nights of December and visit children, giving them either presents or a pile of rotting potatoes, depending on how good they’ve been that year. Each of the 13 Yuletide-lads have distinct personalities that range from pranksters to evil-doers; local myths say that some of the more sinister Yule Lads even kidnap and eat children. According to traditional folklore, the 13 lads are sons of the mountain dwelling troll Grýla who, like her children, existed solely to scare the children of Iceland who misbehaved. While the original version of the Yule Lads portrays them as being elfish with varying differences like peg legs and large noses, modern depictions show them looking more like Santa Claus in his red suit.
Italy is home to a surprisingly nice witch named “Befana” who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). Befana rides her broom around the country and isn’t afraid to use it to smack the kids who try to sneak a peek at her in the middle of the night. If the children have been good, they get a boot full of candy and presents; if not, coal and ashes. According to folklore, Befana was approached by the biblical Three Wise Men in search of shelter after hearing she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. Also, like Santa, Befana takes the chimney down into the houses and before she leaves, since she’s such a great cleaner, will sweep up any mess she made and sweep away the troubles of the past year.
Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Poland
For the Slavic countries, Ded Moroz is the equivalent of Father Christmas, in that the translation of his name means “Old man Frost,” or often “Grandfather Frost”. As more of an embodiment of winter, Ded Moroz is depicted wearing a long, blue robe with a beard similar to Santa Claus and delivers his presents on New Year’s Eve with the help of his granddaughter, Snegurochka — the Snow Maiden. The folklore behind Ded Moroz states that he was a Slavic wizard of winter. In some traditions, instead of delivering presents in the dead of night, Ded Moroz will show up at parties to celebrate and mingle with guests and give out gifts in person.
FATHER CHRISTMAS and PÈRE NOËL
UK & France
France and the United Kingdom celebrate Christmas similarly to the way North America does, so it makes sense that their Christmas mascot is similar too. Father Christmas, known as Père Noël in French, is the bearded, jolly gift-giver who travels between houses in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivers presents to all the good girls and boys on Christmas Eve by squeezing down the chimney into each home. The English and French personifications of Christmas started appearing as early as the 15th century, with Father Christmas first being mentioned in the mid 17th century. This makes them the predecessors to the widely known Santa Claus, who didn’t actually become a popularized figure until the 1800’s
SINTERKLAAS and BLACK PETER
In the Netherlands and Belgium, Sinterklaas looks very similar to Santa with his big white beard and red robes. He even has a big red book called “The Book of Sinterklaas” where he keeps the information on every good or bad girl and boy. The key difference is that instead of arriving on Christmas Eve, Sinterklaas comes on a ship from Spain in late November and is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Dressed in 16th century noble clothes with a lace collar, Black Peter has many controversial backstories that, overtime, have changed and been disregarded because of backlash. The stories have changed from Zwarte Piet being the slave-boy of Sinterklaas and sometimes depicted as a kind of demon, to being a chimney sweep. Said to be a Spanish Moor, any and all depictions of Zwarte Piet show him as a man with blackface makeup (hence the controversy around his character). Once again Sinterklaas differs from Santa in that he isn’t the one who delivers the gifts to the good children, and instead sends Black Peter down the chimney to fill up their boots with candy and toys.
Austria, Hungary, Germany
While some countries still have the same jolly Saint Nicholas we’re used to, Austria and Hungary are also visited by Krampus, the half-goat, half-demon beast who punishes bad children by stealing them from their homes and eating them. While his origins are generally unknown, Krampus is said to be a figure of pre-Christian conception and seriously what nightmares are made of. He is often depicted as a large, hairy, black beast with hooves, goat horns and a long pointed tongue and fangs, and carries heavy chains that are used to symbolize the binding of the Devil and a bundle of birch branches. In modern times, Krampus has become more celebrated in the form of carnivals around Europe and North America where people dress up as the figure and party.
Germany, Austria, Hungary
While Germany, Austria, and Hungary are blessed with the presence of Santa and his creepy sidekick Krampus, they also have a more pure version of a gift-giving character. Christkind, translated to “the Christ Child”, was popularized in the 1500s as a more religion-based holiday figure. Christkind is supposed to be the literal representation of a baby Jesus; Christkind is generally depicted as a small child with angel wings who arrives in the night, is never seen and delivers presents. Naughty bavarians, consider yourself lucky, this religious present-dropper won’t even eat you if you’re bad.