When you think of Christmas, what exactly springs to mind?
The very first snowfall of winter? Spending precious time with friends and loved ones? The image of a jolly, bearded man decked out in red, delivering gifts to children across the world with the help of his trusty reindeer?
Although Christmas is firmly rooted in Christian tradition – that is, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ on 25th December – the holiday has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Today, Christmas is celebrated by billions of people around the world, including millions of non-Christians. The social elements associated with Christmas, such as sharing a meal, decorating the house and gift-giving, have become part of the cultural fabric of many nations in all parts of the world.
The mythical figure of Santa Claus
But there is one mysterious figure that seems to elude definition.
Many of us would say that the jolly, rosy-cheeked man, known to most as Santa Claus, is a mainstay of our Christmas celebrations.
From classic Christmas songs to adverts to pop-up grottos across the country, that image of the famous white beard and red ensemble is as much a part of our December as frosty evenings spent curled up in front of the fire with a mince pie.
A brief history of Santa Claus
Our modern-day conception of Santa, otherwise known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or Kris Kringle, is said to have been born from the traditions surrounding the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek Christian bishop who was known for giving gifts to the needy.
More recently, the oft-quoted 1823 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, written by Clement Clarke Moore, is largely credited with cementing the modern idea of Santa from 19th century onwards as a portly, jolly and benevolent character.
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
But this idea of Santa is only reflective of British and North American traditions. What about the rest of the world?
We’ve asked around the Wolfestone office for our team to share the gift-giving traditions from their own countries.
Read on to discover how the Santa Claus many of us know and love is just one version of the legendary figure… In fact, there are a whole host of Santa-like Christmas characters that differ from country to country!
Santa Claus across the world
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas helped to popularise the mythical figure of Santa Claus in the US as the bringer of toys and gifts to children across the world. However, there was always a lack of consensus regarding the colour of Santa Claus’ costume.
Many people say that it was Coca-Cola’s advertising in the late 1930s which truly cemented the idea of Santa Claus decked out in red, which they had chosen to match the Coca-Cola brand colours – Perhaps one of the most successful results of advertising and branding of all time.
Here in the UK, the figure of Father Christmas was born from English folklore. He was positioned as the personification of Christmas itself.
It’s hard to believe it now, but Father Christmas was traditionally depicted as sporting a green cloak – A far cry from the red velvet affair we’re familiar with today.
In the 19th and early 20th century, the US version of Santa Claus began to arrive in the UK, and the two initially distinct figures seemed to merge. Today, Father Christmas and Santa Claus have become more or less synonymous.
Christmas in Italy is celebrated over several weeks, ending on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, which is a significant date in the Christian calendar. It commemorates when the Three Kings are said to have visited the Baby Jesus. It is widely celebrated in Italy and is marked as national holiday.
It is on the eve of this holiday that another weird and wonderful Christmas figure emerges, one that has been a part of Italian folklore since the 8th century.
La Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is an old woman riding a broomstick, said to deliver with toys and sweets for good children and lumps of coal for the badly-behaved ones!
On the morning of 12th December, Icelandic children excitedly clamber out of bed to see if the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinar, have arrived.
Children are encouraged to put a shoe on the window sill and keep it there for the 13 days leading up to Christmas.
The Yule Lads, who are mischievous little elves, each with distinct names and personalities, will visit each evening and leave a small gift in the shoe – but only if the child has been good. The legend goes that misbehaved children will instead receive rotten potatoes. It surely makes for one of the strangest advent calendars of all time!
The Dutch version of Santa Claus is called Sinterklaas, and is said to have inspired much of the traditions surrounding the Western Santa Claus today.
In the Netherlands, gifts are traditionally exchanged on 5th December, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicolas.
Sinterklaas is said to ride on a white horse wearing a bishop’s hat and a jeweled staff, knocking on doors and bringing gifts to the children who have been good… Are you spotting a theme here!?
Forget 25th December, it’s Christmas Eve that is the most important day in Germany’s Christmas celebrations.
But there’s no Santa Claus bringing gifts down the chimney.
Christkindl, a fairy-like child with angelic wings, is the mythical figure that is said to bring presents to children. The Christkindl is often depicted by figurines and statues around Christmas time, but the children are not supposed to see the Christkindl delivering the gifts in person! Instead, parents will tell their children that the Christkindl deposited gifts and had left again.
What are the gift-giving traditions in your country?