If you watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the big moment each year is when Santa Claus arrives - a jolly old man in a red suit who flies a sleigh powered by reindeer and travels down the chimney with presents. In the United States, there are movies, books, and stories galore about Santa Claus, but did you know that Santa Claus is just one of many legendary holiday figures?
Cultures around the world celebrate winter holidays in different ways, but many of these traditions come from similar origins. While each cultural celebration has their own mythical figures, some of the most popular Christmas traditions include some version of Saint Nicholas. While Santa Claus is one of the most well-known versions of Santa Claus, before he became popular much of the world actually celebrated a patron saint instead.
Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in the 3rd and 4th centuries who helped the penniless by bringing them gifts. There are many legends and stories of him saving people, and coming to their aid in their time of need. He then became the patron saint of children, sailors, and dozens of other groups, inspiring many to celebrate a holiday of giving each year. Even though the legend of Saint Nicholas largely disappeared during the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, people in the Netherlands refused to give up their traditions and brought their version, Sinterklaas (which is where the name Santa Claus comes from), with them to the New World colonies. In fact, the Dutch are a huge reason why the holiday survived past the Reformation and is still celebrated today.
Also known as the Feast of Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas Day is held on December 6th every year in honor of the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death. The holiday is set aside to recognize everything Saint Nicholas did for the poverty-stricken and many traditions include hiding gifts in shoes, exchanging small presents, and leaving treats in shoes for children. When the Dutch took him with them to the American colonies, the celebration transformed into what we know today.
Saint Nicholas around the world today
In America, we’re all quite familiar with Santa Claus and our traditions. But what we know of this jolly bearded fellow isn’t represented the same way elsewhere. In fact, most other countries celebrate the holiday in their own ways.
The United Kingdom celebrates the holiday with Father Christmas. While Father Christmas is similar to Santa Claus, he comes from a different background. His earliest appearance is said to be in the 1500s in a carol, though most people think he comes from the 17th century, Captaine Christmas.
The French also have a Christmas figure that closely resembles Santa Claus — Père Noël. The main difference is that Père Noël wears a hooded cloak with white trim. Children in France also get presents after Mass on Christmas Eve instead of on Christmas Day. No one leaves him milk and cookies, but he might get a nice glass of wine. Instead of stockings, small gifts are left in shoes or slippers. Perhaps the most alarming difference is that naughty children get whipped by Le Père Fouettard, who follows Père Noël as he makes his rounds.
In Sweden, their version of Father Christmas is Jultomten, often depicted as a burly gnome with a red cap and large white beard. The Jultomten is characterized as fickle, and might reward or punish you depending on how he feels. Families leave small offerings of porridge to please him and in exchange, he arrives with a sack of presents. Jultomten isn’t the only gnome or fairy-like version of Santa Claus - Iceland has the Thirteen Yule Lads, and Norway has the Julenise.
In the Netherlands, celebrating Sinterklaas is actually a multi-week event. On the second Saturday in November, Sinterklaas picks a city in the Netherlands and rides a horse through the streets. Most families celebrate by exchanging gifts.Then, on December 5th, children leave their shoes by the fire in the hopes of receiving a small gift or chocolate treat.
Father Frost, also known as Ded Moroz, and his companion, Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden, make their rounds on New Year’s Eve in Russia to bring gifts to children.
Father Frostcarries a staff, and can wear either red or blue. Instead of living at the North Pole, Father Frost lives in Veliky Ustyug and his origins go back to Slavic mythology, where he was known as Morokzo, though folklore predicts this older version of him as cruel— he would kidnap children, holding them ransom until their parents agreed to give him gifts. Snegurochka is Father Frost’s granddaughter, and often wears long silver-blue robes and a furry cap when she helps Father Frost deliver gifts to the children.
Snegurochka isn’t the only woman you might see on Christmas, though. In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, Christkind is the blond angelic figure delivering gifts to (mostly Protestant) children. Her name comes from “christ child,” and she remains important to many religious families as Saint Nicholas has become more commercialized.
Santa Claus and his many variations are typically a Western tradition, largely due to the prominence of religions outside of Christianity in other countries. However, there are a number of countries, particularly on the African continent, who also celebrate Christmas due to the colonization of their countries by European or other Western countries. These countries have versions of Santa Claus similar to Saint Nicholas or even Sinterklaas.
Holiday figures in literature
Interested in learning more about how Saint Nicholas shows up around the world? Check out some of these great versions of Saint Nick in literature.
The Legend of St. Nicholas: A Story of Christmas Giving by Dandi Daley Mackall
The Legend of St. Nicholas tells the story of Nick, a young boy who wants to stare at the gifts under the tree rather than go shopping with his dad. While at the store, he hears a story about Saint Nick, a wealthy boy who uses his family’s money to give to the poor, and learns the true meaning of Christmas.
Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins by Jim Forest
This book covers one of the most popular stories about Saint Nicholas — how he snuck into a widower’s home and hid three bags of gold to save three daughters from lives of prostitution and ensure they were married. It is this story that people commemorate when hanging stockings or leaving behind shoes to be filled with presents.
The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas by William J. Bennett
This book serves as a biography of the Saint, and captures exactly how he became the Santa Claus we know and love today. The True Saint Nicholas captures the heart of who the Saint truly was and how he continues to inspire people to be generous and giving long after his death.
The rich traditions behind Saint Nicholas are an important part of Christmas celebrations around the world. While many of them come from a similar origin, each version of Saint Nicholas has become an important part of cultural celebrations in their own way. How are you planning to celebrate this year?