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From St. Nick to Santa, and beyond…

Have you ever written a letter to Santa Claus, professing your good behavior and detailing what you HOpe, HOpe, HOpe he will bring you on Christmas Eve? Have you visited Santa at a shopping mall just to deliver your wish list in person? Have you ever tiptoed from your bedroom before sunrise, before your parents rise, on December 25 to discover what may (or may not) be waiting for you under the Christmas tree? For many children in the United States, this exciting anticipation of receiving gifts from Santa is a common experience during the holiday season. However, it is not only American children who eagerly anticipate presents from a magical Christmas character. Holiday traditions around the world include a variety of gift givers.

Many European children receive presents from Saint Nicholas on December 5 or 6. Nicholas was a real person and Christian bishop in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the 300’s. He gained a reputation for helping people in desperate situations, especially children. One of the ways he helped children was by bringing them gifts. By 1500, it became tradition for children to put out their stockings so “Saint Nicholas” could fill them with gifts on December 6, his feast day. (A feast day is a day set aside by the Roman Catholic Church to honor a saint.) Children in some countries fill their shoes with straw and carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse on December 5. The next morning, they find their shoes filled with small toys and treats.

During the Reformation of the 1500’s, Protestants substituted other figures for Saint Nicholas, because they did not share the Roman Catholic tradition of saints, while carrying on the gift-giving tradition. The Reformation was a religious movement that led to Protestantism. Protestants disagreed with certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In England, the saint was replaced by Father Christmas. This figure was called Père Noël in France and Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany.

Dutch immigrants brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas to America, where he eventually became known as Santa Claus. Until the 1800’s, people in America pictured Saint Nicholas as a tall, thin, stately man who wore a bishop’s robe and rode a white horse. During the 1800’s, American writers and artists reimagined Saint Nicholas. He became a stout, jolly figure with a white beard and fur-trimmed suit. He drove a wagon or sleigh through the sky and placed gifts from his workshop into stockings that people hung from a fireplace mantel. Although Santa is chiefly a U.S. tradition, he has become part of Christmas celebrations in some other countries, including Brazil, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Children around the world also receive gifts from the baby Jesus (in parts of Europe), Star Man (in Poland), Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost, in Russia), an elflike character called Jultomten or Julenissen (in Scandinavia), and the Three Kings (in Latin America).

In Italian tradition, an old woman known as La Befana leaves gifts. Legend says the Three Kings (also known as the Magi, astrologers from the East) traveled through Italy as they followed a star that they believed would lead them to the infant Jesus. The Three Kings invited La Befana to visit the baby Jesus with them, but she had too much housework to do. She later followed them but did not catch up. Every year on January 6 she flies through the sky on a broomstick, stopping to leave gifts for children as she searches for Jesus.

Although most children look forward to receiving gifts, many traditions give “naughty” children a reason to change their behavior. Those who have been naughty are said to receive coal in their stockings, or a whipping rod to inspire good behavior from Santa or Saint Nicholas. In the traditions of some European countries, Saint Nicholas has a close associate who disciplines or threatens naughty children. For example, in Austria this associate is a beastlike figure called Krampus who is modeled after the Christian Devil. Despite his frightening nature, celebrations of Krampus have become quite popular in some European and U.S. communities.


Photo credit: © Yuganov Konstantin, Shutterstock

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