December 7, 2023

Around the world: Santa is not alone


This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller

We have reached the most joyous and exciting month in the year (at least among the winter ones), and one name is whispered, or shrieked, in awe all across North America, “SANTA!” Commercialization aside (that includes all those humbug remarks), this holiday season is truly the “best time of the year” with good cheer, joy in giving and the presents. Wherever you go, there is usually a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and maybe once or twice, you will get “Happy Hanukkah” (myself, I find delight in “Happy Christmahanukwanzaka Day”) while hearing the constant bell-ringing from the frozen but cheery Salvation Army folk. Now that we can practically smell the season of giving, why not go back in time to happier days as a jobless, stress-free child and think of that rosy fat man who watches our every move with pipe and cookie in hand.
We all have questions pertaining to that jolly spirit of Christmas known as Kris Kringle or Santa Claus, to name a few, with adults asking, “Have you been good this year?” Children practically explode with questions such as, “How can Santa come if we don’t have a chimney?” and “Does Santa know we moved?” I don’t recall asking these questions (especially after my aunt bought the Santa Claus Book because it explains everything, almost) but there was one big question I had for the longest time, “How does Santa get to every house in the world and what about the people who don’t believe in Santa Claus?” I discovered the answer some years ago and now can share it with you.
Santa does not make the worldwide trip, but that is okay because he is not alone. Many countries have a Santa or gift giver of their own. I will provide a list of just a few countries and their personage of giving. Note: It is difficult finding reliable evidence on the Internet and even in books. In advance, some of these events and celebrated givers may be incorrect and names may be spelled incorrectly or translations mistaken, but I did my best to look at multiple sources and translate correctly.
The first stop on our international Santa tour will begin in the country proclaimed as the inventor of the Christmas Tree: Germany. Germans celebrate Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day, 6 Dec.), Advent, Heiliger Abend (Holy Evening, Christmas Eve) and Christmas during the month of December (though Advent starts in November). Though Christmas is celebrated, Santa Claus is not. Instead they are visited by Heilige Nikolaus (also spelled as Sankt Nikolaus, both mean Saint Nicholas) who shares his name with North America’s own St. Nick. Both “Santas” complete the same task of giving goodies but go about it in different ways. Nikolaus travels on a white horse or walks and does not visit Christmas Eve but on the eve of his name day Dec. 6. Heilige Nikolaus has other differences for his tall, lean frame is draped with canonical robes and carries a bishop’s crook. Santa Claus is a lone traveler except for his reindeer, but Nikolaus travels with “friends.” The Knecht Ruprecht (or Krampus, demon-like creatures) accompany the German St. Nick on his evening rounds, sometimes helping by carrying the bags of presents but always grasping wooden switches or Eine Rute (a rod) with which they whip the naughty children while Nikolaus gives out the presents to the nice. Unfortunately, Nikolaus does not appear to all children. On the night of Dec. 5 German children leave their shoes by the door or a window (this Santa does not do chimneys) and in the morning they find them stuffed with candy and gifts.
Why stop at one gift-giving holiday when you can have more? That is exactly what the Germans did. On Heiliger Abend, families gather and participate in an exchange of gifts. However, another gift giver called Christkindl (a Lutheran, angelic Christ Child) also brings gifts this night. Some think “Christkindl” was anglicized and became Kris Kringle.
Now we head northeast from Germany to the land of our English cousins. You won’t find Santa in England unless he is in a soft drink advertisement. The British gift giver is called Father Christmas. Though he has a different name, over the years he has become more and more like our own Santa. Once, Father Christmas was associated with pagan winter festivals and dressed in a green robe and wore a wreath of ivy, holly and mistletoe.
Father Christmas’ name was changed to Father Time or King Frost/Winter during the early C.E. (A.D.) centuries but he had a representative who would dress as him and people let him into their homes and fed him. They thought showing kindness to King Winter’s agent would bring gifts, such as a mild winter, from the actual King Winter. After a while, he became associated with Christmas and was again called Father Christmas. Since the 1930s, the American Santa (with help from a certain soft-drink company) has taken over his turf, but a resurgence of belief in the green-clad personage has slowed the crossover. Father Christmas is no softy who can be fed by milk and cookies, he prefers minced pie (also called Christmas Pie) and sherry.
On to the vast land of wintery beauty. Some sources claim that Russia’s Santa, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), is a mixture between the original Ded Moroz and the Soviet-instituted Father Frost who was the symbol of New Years. Legend says that Ded Moroz is descended from a mythic character, named Morozka, who was evil and kidnap children. Later on, he became nice and even gave presents to children which Ded Moroz continues to this day. Like the German Heilige Nikolaus, Ded Moroz does not travel alone (though he travels by troika which is a sleigh pulled by three horses). His granddaughter Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) accompanies him in her pure white wardrobe and stylish crown. Ded Moroz gives gifts in his heavily embroidered Russian robe (of gold, silver, red or blue) that clothes an old, tall frame. The duo does not leave gifts on the eve of Dec. 25 but waits until January. Christmas in Russia is celebrated on Jan. 7 following the Russian Orthodox Calendar. What is interesting is that Christmas wishes can get to Ded Moroz easier than to Santa, for Ded Moroz lives in Russia in the city of Veliky Ustyug.
Let’s travel to the warmer country of Greece. The Greeks are proud of their ties to Santa, but not in the way you might think. The Greeks do not believe in Santa, instead they turn to a year-round personage by the name of Ágios Nikólaos (Saint Nicholas). Nikolaos’s history is actually traceable by the standards of history, though his legends are a bit more elusive. Nikolaos of Myra (modern-day Demre in Turkey) is said to become a priest at a relatively young age and devoted his life to charity by giving dowries to destitute young women so they would not become slaves or prostitutes. Some tales say that he threw bags of money down the chimneys of poor newlyweds and other hard-hit people. Nikolaos became a bishop later and was part of Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea. Because of his works, Nikolaos was canonized and became Ágios Nikólaos the patron saint of sailors, butchers, bakers and children and many more. He is dressed in the brilliant red of bishop vestments and is bearded or shaves sometimes. Strangely this charity-driven saint does not give presents that coincide with the holiday season, that task is left to his fellow canonized Greek, Saint Basil. Saint Basil gives gifts on his feast day on Jan 1.
Now for our final destination, the South American country of Chile. Some folklorists claim that the whole Western Hemisphere is influenced by America and Canada so that includes Santa. Santa Claus visits houses in Canada, America, Mexico and various other countries on this side of the Earth and has great influence over the other gift givers in the Americas. Chile has Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) who could be Santa’s twin. Viejo Pascuero is a plump, old guy who wears red and drives a reindeer-pulled sleigh, but unlike Santa, he prefers windows to the chimney and since it is Chile, his suit is made of more breathable material.
These are a few of Santa Claus’ counterparts with thousands more (some countries have more than ten!) around the world, including China’s Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) and Pere Noel in France. I am not disproving the existence of Santa (it would be unwise to snub the guy I get most of my Christmas presents from), I am explaining that he is not alone in the cold, winter night of Christmas Eve nor does he have so far to travel. I would also like to make aware that we in America are being gypped. We do not observe one of the biggest holidays ever which is the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, nor the Feast of St. Stephen (AKA Boxing Day) on Dec. 26, what does our government have against feasting?
Complaints aside, enjoy this holiday season whether you celebrate Advent, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, Winter Solstice or all of them, and don’t forget to set your shoes by the door, don the mantle with stockings, putout the chimney fire and eat that Advent Calendar chocolate before it’s gone!