Around the world Christmas is celebrated and children wait in anticipation for Santa to fly across the sky in his reindeer drawn sleigh to deliver gifts to all those who’ve been good. But is Santa the same for all of us? Let’s go on a journey with Santa as he speeds around the world on Christmas Eve.
An American Santa is a familiar sight. Children around the world watch American movies and cartoons and see the jolly fellow in his red and white outfit. He and his wife live in the North Pole where they spend the year making toys with their elf helpers. Children write him letters asking for what they wish. On Christmas Eve Santa packs his sleigh with all the toys and gifts and, with his list ready at hand, he sets off into the sky, pulled by his trusty team of reindeer. He enters homes by coming down the chimney where he fills stockings with gifts. But only those who have been good throughout the year will receive these treats from Santa. Often parents use this as a disciplinary tool. It is customary for children to leave milk and cookies for Santa to sustain him on his busy night. Carrots can be left for his hungry reindeer too. Children are encouraged to go to sleep, despite their excitement, as Santa does not come if you are awake. In the morning bulging stockings are met with squeals of excitement.
Christmas, pronounced Kurisumasu, is celebrated with enthusiasm in Japan. Despite gift giving playing a smaller role in Japan than in the US, Santa still plays an important role and children wait in anticipation for Santa-san (Mr. Santa) on Christmas Eve. Children write letters to Santa asking for gifts. As very few homes in Japan have a chimney Santa has to enter another way. Japanese children believe he is a kind of magical ghost that appears with gifts.
The first appearance of Santa at a Japanese Christmas celebration was in 1875 when a Santa dressed as a Samurai appeared at the Harajo School from Ginza. One of the reasons Japan may have adopted Santa with such open arms may be his similarity to a Japanese god, Hotei. Hotei is one of the 7 lucky gods and is always depicted with a cheerful grin and round belly like Santa. But, while Santa’s belly is due to all the Christmas cookies he eats, Hotei’s belly is large due to his immense soul overflowing with love for mankind. Just like Santa Hotei also carries a sack. While Santa’s bag is filled with presents, Hotei’s bag is more mysterious. Some legends claim it is filled with his clothing, some say a rice plant, others say it is filled with all the woes of the world and yet others say it is filled with toys and gifts for children he encounters on his travels. Both wear red but Hotei wears this colour as it offers magical protection against disease and demons. Hotei also carries an oogi (a fan) and it is said that he can make ones troubles disappear with a single wave of his oogi. So Japanese children have not one but two magical beings for whom they wait in anticipation on Christmas Eve.
Russian children wait in anticipation for Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) to bring them gifts. Ded Moroz was banned from 1928 to 1935 by the communist authorities but is a popular figure at Christmas and New Year and is a symbol of Russian traditions. Since Soviet times Ded Moroz delivers gifts on new Year’s Eve rather than Christmas Eve and the decorated tree is also put up for New Year rather than Christmas although it can be used for both. Ded Moroz lives at an estate in the town of Veliky Ustyug in Vologda Oblast and children send letters to him here asking for their wishes to be granted. Unlike Santa, with is jolly pot belly, Ded Moroz is slender with a long, white wizard like beard and wears long flowing robes in white, red, silver or icy blue. He wears a traditional Russian fur hat and boots known as valenki. He carries a magical staff to help him through snow drifts and does not wear glasses. There are no elf helpers for Ded Moroz. He is helped by his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) who wears long silver blue robes and a snowflake-like crown. Where Santa has a sleigh pulled by reindeer, Ded Moroz has a troika drawn by three large horses. Ded Moroz comes through the front door rather than down the chimney and he leaves the gifts under the holiday tree as there are no stockings. Only well-mannered children are eligible for gifts from Ded Moroz.
In Brazil Santa is known as Papai Noel or Bom Velhinho (Good Old Man). Papai Noel does not come into the house but children leave socks near the window and if he finds them he will exchange them for gifts. Decorations often include fake snow to welcome Santa who is used to his icy North Pole home. Despite the hot weather of the Brazilian summer Papai Noel dresses as the US Santa dresses and can be seen sweating in his red winter clothes. But Santa is slowly being reshaped to represent the clothing, climate and culture of Brazil. Due to the heat Santa can sometimes be seen wearing a red silk suit with open shoes and more often than not he is slender and darker skinned than his US counterpart.
Santa is known as Father Christmas in South Africa. He is depicted on cards, decorations and pictures in the traditional red coat with white fur trim but if seen in person he is often wearing open shoes and a light weight red Santa outfit. Father Christmas comes down chimneys or through windows. He leaves gifts for well-behaved children in stockings or under the Christmas tree. Children leave carrots for the reindeer but instead of milk and cookies often a slice of Christmas cake and a cold beer are left for Father Christmas to help combat the African heat on his journey around the world.
In Norway Santa is known as Julenisse. Nisse are short creatures with long white beards and red hats. Julenisse is the gift-bearing nisse and goes from door to door distributing gifts on Christmas Eve. Before Christianity, Norwegians celebrated the passing of the harvest and the coming of Spring in a festival known as Jul. It was a celebration to get them through the long winter. These days pre-Christmas parties, called julebord, are held in the weeks leading up to Christmas. These affairs require formal attire and plenty of traditional food and drink is consumed. An old Norwegian belief that the coming of Christmas coincides with the coming of evil witches and spirits has led to a tradition of hiding all the brooms in the house on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day in Norway and gifts are opened after Christmas dinner. On the evening of 23 December ‘Little Christmas Eve’ is celebrated. This involves decorating the Christmas tree and eating risengrynsgrøt; a hot rice pudding served with sugar, cinnamon and butter. An almond is hidden in the pudding and the lucky person who finds the almond in his/her portion of pudding wins a marzipan pig. Left over rice pudding is left out for the barn gnome.
Originally Germany celebrated Christmas with Sankt Nikolaus who traveled from town to town delivering gifts. He resembles a Catholic bishop and dons a bishop’s miter, long brocade coat and a golden staff. Instead of elf helpers he has Kraumpus, a ragged devil like creature and Knecht Ruprecht, who carries a weapon. St Nikolaus Day is celebrated on 6 December when he visits towns to read from his book and hand out gifts of sweets, fruit and nuts. Children who will not see St Nikolaus in person leave a boot outside on the evening of 5 December and in the morning the boot is filled with sweets.
Martin Luther and the Protestant movement challenged the largely Catholic tradition of Sankt Nikolaus and brought in a tradition of their own, the Christkind. The Christkind is a female angel-like creature with blond hair and wings who delivers gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
Over time the personas of St Nikolaus, Santa and the Christkind have become intertwined but all three remain important to Germany’s Christmas traditions.