Santa Claus around the world: Gifts on Dec. 6, an old lady delivering them, and other countries’ concepts

Santa Claus around the world: Gifts on Dec. 6, an old lady delivering them, and other countries’ concepts
In Italy, an old woman who rides a broom known as La Befana brings children gifts instead of Santa Claus. (Source: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(RNN) – Everyone knows Santa Claus, right?

The image of a jolly old man with a white beard and a red suit who visits the world’s children every December 25th leaving gifts is unmistakable.

But it turns out it’s not quite so standard everywhere around the globe.

In some places, like the Netherlands (where Sinterklass comes to town), children got their gifts a couple weeks ago. In others, like Russia (where Ded Moroz makes a list and checks it twice), they won’t get them until about a week after Christmas Day.

And then there’s Italy, where a lady on a broom, instead of a man in a sleigh, flies around bringing kids their presents.

Here are some of the world’s most striking departures from how we understand the concept of Santa Claus:

  • Italy, La Befana: Children in Italy have to wait all the way until Jan. 6 to wake up to gifts. That’s the morning after La Befana flies around delivering them on Epiphany Eve, the night before the Christian holiday celebrating when the Three Wise Men discovered the baby Jesus.  According to La Befana lore, the Wise Men happened upon her and asked her to join them on their way to Bethlehem, but she declined. She later changed her mind and tried to catch up, but never found Jesus, and now continues her search every year, leaving gifts for the world’s children along the way.
  • Netherlands, Sinterklass: A number of European countries tie the giving of gifts to the celebration of the historical Saint Nicholas, a Greek priest who was born in the year 270. Nicholas’ legend for generously giving gifts to the poor inspired much of modern Western Christianity’s concept of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on Dec. 6, and for the Dutch, Sinterklass comes around the night before on St. Nicholas Eve. Luxembourg (Klees’chen), Switzerland (Samichlaus) and parts of Belgium are a few of the countries that also celebrate this way. (In the Netherlands, Sinterklass is accompanied by a sidekick, “Black Pete," whose historic racist blackface portrayal has been heavily criticized.)
  • Turkey, Noel Baba: Saint Nicholas is also celebrated in Turkey, a country that today encompasses the city where the ancient Greek Nicholas lived his life. The Muslim-majority country doesn’t celebrate Christmas much, though, so Noel Baba takes prominence on New Year’s Eve as friends and family exchange gifts.
  • Colombia, El Niño Dios: In Colombia and some other Latin American countries, it is customarily understood that gifts come not from Santa Claus or some other kind of mythologized figure, but rather from the baby Jesus himself (El Niño Dios in Spanish translating to “God Child.”)
  • Russia, Ded Moroz: Considered a “Father Frost” figure, Ded Moroz brings gifts on New Year’s Eve, after the strictly secular communist regime of the Soviet Union discouraged the more explicitly religious celebrations of Saint Nicholas on Dec. 6 and Jesus on Dec. 25. While he’s more or less presented the same way as Santa Claus (red suit, white beard), Ded Moroz notably departs from Santa in the sidekick department. Instead of Mrs. Claus or elves, his snow maiden granddaughter Snegurochka serves as his helper.
  • Greece, Saint Basil: Greek children also receive gifts on January 1st, but not for the same reason as Russian children. While Saint Nicholas' reputation as a gift-giver led to the conceptualization of Santa Claus in Western and Central Europe, farther east the Greeks revere a different 4th-century priest for his generosity: Saint Basil, or Agios Vasileios. His saint’s day is celebrated on Jan. 1 with a feast and the exchanging of gifts. Unlike other “Father Christmas” figures with red suits and black boots, Greeks stress the the importance of the historical Basil and promote iconography that remains true to his image.
  • Liberia, Old Man Bayka: In this West African nation, the role gets reversed - instead of bringing gifts, “Old Man Beggar” goes around asking for them, part of a street performance that can also include a Santa Claus figure. And instead of a “Merry Christmas” greeting, he tells revelers, “My Christmas on you!”
  • Finland, Joulupukki: The literal translation of the word refers to a goat, and is drawn from ancient pagan traditions. With Christianity’s spread into the Nordic countries, the term eventually came to mean a Santa Claus figure based on Saint Nicholas, with a little twist: Joulopukki’s gift-giving tradition also draws from the historic celebration of St. Knut’s Day on Jan. 13, in which Finnish men would dress up as evil nuuttipukki, often wearing goat-like masks, and go around demanding gifts and food.
  • Iceland, Yule Lads: Think of this tradition as something like a cross between the Seven Dwarfs and the 12 Days of Christmas. According to Icelandic tradition, the Yule Lads arrive one per night for each of the 13 nights leading up to Dec. 25. Originally imagined as mischievous trolls, nowadays they fill a Santa-like role, leaving gifts and candies.  Don’t wind up on the “Naughty List” in Iceland, though. The Yule Lads don’t leave coal for children who haven’t been good enough throughout the year - they leave rotting potatoes.
  • Japan, Hotei: A portly old man carrying a sack of gifts is in line with the Western image of Santa Claus, but in Japan Hotei is a Buddhist deity, rather than a mystical dweller of the North Pole, who goes around bringing gifts to good children. As an added bonus, he has eyes in the back of his head to be able to tell if children are really being good or not.
  • Spain, Los Reyes Magos: In Spain they celebrate a general Christmas season, culminating with Epiphany on Jan. 6, as in Italy. Rather than any one particular Santa-like figure, it is the Three Kings, or Wise Men (Reyes Magos) who bring children gifts, as the biblical Magi brought the infant Jesus gifts, on the morning of Jan. 6.
  • Iran, Amu Nowruz: The idea of a friendly old man with a long white beard who brings gifts doesn’t just belong to the Christian West. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Amu Nowruz (think of it roughly translating as something like “Uncle New Year”) comes around bearing gifts for children.  He is typically paired with Haji Firuz, a sort of jester figure that sings and dances through the streets (and has racist minstrel-like origins).

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