Christmas gift-bringer

Christmas gift-bringer

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A number of Midwinter or Christmas traditions in European folklore involve gift-bringers. Mostly involving the figure of a bearded old man, the traditions have mutually influenced one another, and have adopted aspects from Christian hagiography, even before the modern period. In Slavic countries, the figure is mostly Father Frost. In Scandinavia, it is an elf-like figure or tomten who comes at Yule (and who sometimes also takes the form of a goat). In Western Europe, the figure was also similar to an elf, developing into Father Christmas in the modern period in Great Britain. In German-speaking Europe and Latin Europe, it became associated with the Christian Saint Nicholas.

In some parts of Central Europe, there is a separate tradition of a young child or fairy-like being bringing presents, known as Christkind.

From these European traditions, the North American figure of Santa Claus developed, beginning in the 1820s. The American figure in turn had considerable influence on the various European traditions during the 20th century.



Pre-Christian folklore

An 1886 depiction of Odin by Georg von Rosen.

Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization. Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Santa Claus.[1]

Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky.[2] Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus's reindeer.[3] Further, Odin was referred to by many names in Skaldic poetry, some of which describe his appearance or functions. These include Síðgrani,[4] Síðskeggr,[5] Langbarðr,[6] (all meaning "long beard") and Jólnir[7] ("Yule figure").

According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands and became associated with Saint Nicholas since the adoption of Christianity Christianization. In other countries it has been replaced by the hanging of stockings at the chimney in homes.[citation needed]

Originating from pre-Christian Alpine traditions and influenced by later Christianization, the Krampus is represented as a Companion of Saint Nicholas. Traditionally, some young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December and particularly on the evening of December 5 and roam the streets frightening children (and adults) with rusty chains and bells.

Saint Nicholas

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria.

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.[8] He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari[9][10] where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers.[8][11] He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.[12]

European folklore

There are numerous traditions of Christmas gift-bringers in European folklore. They can be loosely classified in variations of an "Old Man" (Old Man Winter, Father Christmas), and a "child" or "girl" tradition. The "Old Man" is frequently syncretised with the hagiographical traditions of Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil.

In some countries, these traditions co-exist. In Italy, there is Babbo Natale ("Father Christmas") and La Befana (similar to Santa Claus; she rides a broomstick rather than a sleigh, but is not considered a witch) besides Santa Lucia ("Saint Lucy," a blind old woman who on December 13 brings gifts to children in some regions, riding a donkey) and Gesù bambino ("Child Jesus"). Slovenia has Sveti Miklavž or Sveti Nikolaj (Saint Nicholas) on 6 December, Božiček on 24 December and Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Winter) on 31 December.

Old Man figure

The "Old Man Winter" traditions are widespread in Germanic Europe and Slavic Europe, and adjacent regions Finland, the Baltic, the Balkans, the Caucasus.

Eastern Europe

Russian Ded Moroz at his residence in Veliky Ustyug.

Ded Moroz or "Father Frost" is the Slavic name of this figure

  • Albania – "Babadimri"
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Djeda Mraz ("Grandfather Frost")
  • Bulgaria: Дядо Коледа ("Grandfather Christmas"), Дядо Мраз ("Grandfather Frost") in the past
  • Croatia: Djed Božičnjak ("Grandfather Christmas") or Djed Mraz ("Grandfather Frost")
  • Latvia: Ziemassvētku vecītis ("Christmas old man")
  • Lithuania: Senis Šaltis ("Old Man Frost") or Kalėdų Senelis ("Christmas Grandfather")
  • Macedonia: Дедо Мраз / Dedo Mraz
  • Romania, Moldova: Moş Crăciun ("Old Man Christmas"); Moş Nicolae ("Old Man Nicholas"); Moş Gerilă ("Old Man Frost")
  • Russia: Дед Мороз (Ded Moroz, "Grandfather Frost")
  • Serbia: Дедa Мрaз / Deda Mraz (Ded Moroz, "Grandfather Frost"); Божић Бата / Božić Bata ("Christmas Brother")
  • Slovenia: Božiček or Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Winter). Božiček on December 24 and Dedek Mraz on December 31.
  • Ukraine: Дід Мороз / Did Moroz.

Related figures are found in Albania, Plaku i Vitit te Ri ("Old Man Of The New Year"), and Armenia Ձմեռ Պապիկ (Dzmer Papik "Grandfather Winter") or Կաղանդ Պապա (Kaghand Papa "Father Christmas" or "Father New Year"), in Georgia: თოვლის ბაბუა, თოვლის პაპა (Tovlis Babua, Tovlis Papa "Snow Grandfather").

Northern Europe

The Scandinavian figure is named for Yule

Western Europe

The "old man" figure is named for Christmas in Western Europe.

  • France: Père Noël ("Father Christmas," also a common figure in other French-speaking areas)
  • Germany: Weihnachtsmann ("Christmas Man");
  • Ireland: Daidí na Nollaig (Father Christmas)
  • Netherlands & Flanders: Kerstman ("Christmas Man")
  • Portugal: Pai Natal
  • Spain: Aragon and Catalonia: Apart from the Reis Mags (Biblical Magi) tradition, in Catalonia and in the North of Aragon there is another local tradition, the Tió de Nadal or tronca de Navidad. Usually this character gives small gifts, the more important gifts being given by the Reis Mags. As in the rest of Spain, the imported Pare Noel (Santa Claus) tradition is becoming more common.
  • United Kingdom: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Santa, Siôn Corn ("Chimney John" in Welsh)[13]

Association with Saint Nicholas

The association of the "Old Man Winter" figure with the Christian Saint Nicholas is most common in Central Europe, but is found as far east as in the Ukraine and as far west as in the Netherlands.

  • Czech Republic: Svatý Mikuláš ("Saint Nicholas") - he brings gifts in evening of December 5, day before his holiday. He often gives sweets and fruits (for nice kids) and potatoes and coal (for naughty kids);
  • Hungary: Similar to the Czech Republic, the Mikulás ("Nicholas"); Télapó ("Old Man Winter") brings gifts in evening of December 5, day before his holiday, mostly candies for nice kids and virgács, potatoes and coal for naughty kids.
  • Slovenia: Sveti Miklavž or Sveti Nikolaj (Saint Nicholas), on December 6.
  • Switzerland: Samichlaus
  • Ukraine: Svyatyy Mykolay
  • Poland: Święty Mikołaj / Mikołaj ("Saint Nicholas"); Gwiazdor in some regions

In Greek tradition, the role of gift-bringer is with Άγιος Βασίλης (Saint Basil) rather than Saint Nicholas.


In Bavaria, Austria and neighbouring areas (Hungary, Bohemia, eastern Switzerland plus Liechtenstein), the Christkind ("Christ child"; Czech Ježíšek "child Jesus"; Hungarian Jézuska or Kis Jézus "child Jesus") brings gifts in the evening of 24 December (which differs from Santa Claus's gifting during the night between December 24 and 25th); kids are unpacking gifts in evening already. The figure is interpreted as the baby Jesus in some traditions, but in others it is a female child or angel-like figure.

Reception outside of Europe

North America

In North America, the various traditions of European settlers amalgamated, by the 1840s resulting in the Santa Claus figure. The name Santa Claus is taken from Dutch Sinterklaas, but the figure also has incorporated aspects of Father Christmas and Joulupukki.

Latin America

Father Christmas in Latin America is known as Papá Noel. There are variations from country to country, but the North American Santa Claus figure has been of considerable influence.


People around Asia, particularly countries that have adopted Western cultures, also celebrate Christmas and the gift-giver traditions passed down to them from the West. Some countries that observe and celebrate Christmas (especially as a public holiday) include Hong Kong, Philippines, East Timor, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and the Christian communities within Central Asia and the Middle East.

Central Asia and Caucasus
  • Afghanistan – "Baba Chaghaloo"
  • Armenia – "Kaghand Papik" (Կաղանդ պապիկ)
  • Azerbaijan: Şaxta baba ("Grandfather Frost")
  • Kazakhstan - Колотун Бабай ('Father Frost')
  • Mongolia – Өвлийн өвгөн Ovliin ovgon ("Grandfather Winter")
  • Uzbekistan – "Qor bobo" (Which means "Grandfather Snow", and is related with New Year's Eve instead of Christmas.
East Asia
  • China – "Shengdan laoren" (Traditional Chinese: 聖誕老人, Simplified Chinese: 圣诞老人, Cantonese: "Sing Dan Lo Yan", pinyin: shèngdànlǎorén literally "The Old Man of Christmas")
  • Hong Kong: 聖誕老人 (jyutping: sing3 daan3 lou5 jan4 lit. Christmas old man) Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas
  • Japan: サンタさん、サンタクロース santa-san (lit. Mr. Santa), サンタクロース santa kurōsu
  • Japan – (Romaji: "Santakurōsu", loan of "Santa Claus")
  • Korea: 산타 클로스 ("santa kullosu"), 산타 할아버지 ("santa grandfather")
  • Mongolia: Өвлийн өвгөн ("Uvliin uvgun" Winter's Grandfather)
  • Vietnam: Ông già Noel ("The Christmas old man")
South Asia
  • India: Jingal Bell, Santa Clause, Telugu: Thatha("Christmas old man") Marathi: Natal Bua ( Christmas elder man)
  • Sri Lanka – "Naththal Seeya"

Africa and the Middle East

Christians in Africa and Middle East who celebrate Christmas generally ascribe to the gift-giver traditions passed down to them by Europeans in the late 19th century and early 20th century . Descendants of colonizers still residing in these regions likewise continue the practices of their ancestors.[14]

  • South Africa: Sinterklaas; Father Christmas; Santa Claus; Kersvader
  • Lebanon: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)
  • Syria: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)
  • Egypt: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)


  1. ^ McKnight, George Harley. St. Nicholas - His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration (1917) Available on-line: [1]
  2. ^ The Encyclopedia Americana (1920) (page 307) Available online: [2].
  3. ^ Collier's Encyclopedia (1986) (Page 414)
  4. ^ Found in Alvíssmál (6)
  5. ^ Found in Gylfaginning, Grímnismál (48), Nafnaþulur, Óðins nöfn (6)
  6. ^ Found in Nafnaþulur and Óðins nöfn (7)
  7. ^ Found in Óðins nöfn (7)
  8. ^ a b "Santa Claus: The real man behind the myth". MSNBC. December 22, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27. 
  9. ^ St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Encyclopedia
  10. ^ Saint Nicholas Encyclopedia Britannica
  11. ^ "Saint Nicholas ::: People". Retrieved 2010-12-21. 
  12. ^ "Saint Nicholas ::: Places". Retrieved 2010-12-21. 
  13. ^ "Santa's Names Around the World". Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  14. ^ "Dutch Sinterklaas on Horseback in Downtown Sofia - - Sofia News Agency". 2005-12-03. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 

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