In North America and many countries around the world, Christmas has become synonymous with Santa Claus. According to traditional Christian beliefs, Santa Claus is depicted as an aged man who visits homes with well-mannered children through the chimney and leaves them gifts and candy. The character of Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, an ancient Greek Christian Bishop who according to several Christian denominations is the patron saint of children. However, in other countries around the world, many other mythical figures exist closely resembling Santa Claus either in appearance or actions.
11. Netherlands - Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas is a legendary figure from Netherlands who is based on Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Greek Christian Bishop from ancient Greece. The Feast of Sinterklaas is observed in Netherlands on December 6th but begins on December 5th during St. Nicholas’s Eve where people give out gifts especially to the children. It is the story of Sinterklaas that the modern celebration of Santa Klaus is based. According to the local legend in Netherlands, Sinterklaas is an aged man who spots a full white beard, wears a long red chasuble over a white alb and rides on a white horse known as Amerigo moving from house to house, rewarding children for good behavior with gifts. The legend of Sinterklaas originated in the Middle-Ages and was observed as a day to assist the poor in society.
10. Italy - Befana
In Italy, local legends tell of a woman known as Befana who is the country’s Santa Claus equivalent. According to legends in Italy, Befana is a legendary old woman who gives gifts to children annually during Epiphany Eve, a festival observed all over the country on the night of January 5th. The local folklore in Italy portrays Befana as an old hag who travels aerially riding on a broomstick and wears a black shawl. Befana is believed to visit homes, entering through the chimney and leaves candy and other gifts to children who have been good and leaves soot or a lump of coal to children who have been bad. In modern Italy, Befana is also known as the Christmas Witch.
9. Central Europe - Mikulas
In many countries in Central Europe including Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, Poland, and Slovakia, Szent Miklos or Mikulas is celebrated as a historical figure similar to Saint Nicolas. The legend of Mikulas originated in Hungary and spread to other Central-European countries. According to the folklore, Mikulas accompanied by his assistants visits homes on December 5th every year where good children are awarded gifts and candy for their good behavior while children with poor morals receive a wooden spoon or pieces of raw potatoes or lumps of coal from Mikulas’ mean assistant, Krampusz.
8. Finland - Joulupukki
Joulupukki is legendary Christmas figure from Scandinavia who is usually celebrated in Norway. The term “Joulupukki” is a Finnish word which is loosely translated to “Yule Goat.” The legend of Joulupukki tells of an old man with a long white beard who wears tight red leather pants and a red fur trimmed coat, travels on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer and visits homes all over the country leaving gifts to children. The origin of Joulupukki is traced to ancient Scandinavia and is based on a mythical Norse figure, but Christianity incorporated this old pagan tradition and merged it with the celebration of Saint Nicholas to form a Christian tradition.
7. Iceland - Yule Lads
The modern Santa Claus-equivalent in Iceland is known as the Yule Lads (also known as Yulemen) who are based on historical Icelandic folklore figures. According to the folklore, Yule Lads were the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, trolls who live in the mountains and the Yule Lads would descend from the mountains to prank or scare children who misbehaved and were accompanied by Yule Cat, a beast which would eat children who did not get new Christmas clothes. In modern Iceland, Yule Lads are depicted as 13 men who travel around the country during Christmas, offering gifts to children with good morals.
6. Germany - Krampus
The Krampus is a popular Christmas figure in Germany and is a companion of Santa Klaus. According to German folklore, Krampus is depicted as a horned, “half-goat, half-demon” mythical creature possessing a long forked tongue who punishes children who have been naughty, contrasting Saint Nicholas who gives gifts to children with good behavior. Like many Christmas mythical beings, Krampus originated from the pagan beliefs of ancient Germany and was a horned god of the witches. In modern Europe, Krampus is portrayed by people wearing hairy costumes accessorized by demon masks and horns.
5. Iran - Amu Nowruz
Amu Nowruz is an Iranian fictional figure featuring in local folklore. Also known as Papa Nowruz, Amu Nowruz is believed to appear at the start of spring of each year accompanied by Haji Firuz, another fictional figure, to commemorate the opening of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. Similar to Santa Claus, Amu Nowruz is depicted as a silver-haired old man, spotting long white beards, who visits children and gives them gifts. In contrast, Haji Firuz, Amu’s companion, plays tambourine and demands gifts from children.
4. Russian - Ded Moroz
Ded Moroz is a Russian fictional figure who is a Santa Claus equivalent. The folklore surrounding Ded Moroz is present in Ukraine, Russia and many countries in the former Eastern Bloc. Ded Moroz loosely translates to “Old Man Frost” in Russian. According to legends, Ded Moroz is an old man with a long white beard and wears a long fur coat, a fur hat and carries a long magic staff. Ded Moroz is said to appear on New Year’s Eve where he gifts children with presents while accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka.
3. Northern Europe - Nisse
Nisse is a mythical figure featuring in Scandinavian folklore and is associated with the Christmas season. A nisse is usually depicted as a tiny (35-inch in height) dwarf with the close resemblance of a garden gnome with a long, white beard and wearing a conical cap. According to the folklore, nisse appears during the winter solstice and particularly on Christmas and delivers gifts to the doors of residents. In recent years, the commercialization of Christmas has gradually made the traditional nisse to resemble Santa Claus.
2. Central Europe - Christkind
Christkind or Christkindl is a fictional figure associated with the Christmas season whose tradition is observed across central Europe in Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland. Christkind is portrayed as a sprite-like child with short blonde hair and tiny angelic wings and is said to give gifts to children during Christmas. Christkind was a creation of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Church during the 16th century as a resemblance of baby Jesus.
1. Basque Country - Olentzero
Olentzero is a mythical figure of Basque Christmas tradition which is believed to visit towns during Christmas Eve (December 24th) to give gifts to local children. The tradition involving the Olentzero originated in the 17th century in Basque Country.
Does Santa Claus Exist Around the World?
Different countries from around the world have their own take on Santa Claus, from Yule Lads in Iceland to Krampus in Germany.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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