One of the main fixtures of Christmas is, of course, Santa Claus. A jolly, portly, bearded man in red and white with nine reindeer travels the world in one night to deliver presents on Christmas Eve. It's a story everyone's familiar with. Of course, this particular tradition has changed a lot over the years, and has its many variations in other cultures. Here are just a few iconic festive figures from around Europe.
Saint Nicholas of Myra
Saint Nick is without doubt the most well known figure of Father Christmas in Western culture. He was an early Christian bishop and the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. There are many legends associated with him, but the one most remember is his reputation for secretly leaving coins in shoes left out for him, and later his feat day - 6 December - became associated with gift-giving. It was Martin Luther who encouraged these celebratory practices to be saved for Christmas, in a bid to steer children's interest towards worshipping Christ rather than venerating Saints.
A less friendly Christmas figure is the Central European character Krampus. With his horns, cloven feet and enjoyment of punishing naughty children, you can sort of see why he's not so popular in Christian countries. He's thought to be a demonic companion of Saint Nicholas and many believe him to originate from the Pagan Horned God. Now he's a well-known figure in Christmassy horror movies.
This Germanic character is thought to be another companion of Saint Nicholas, with "nickel" being a diminutive form of the name. He's rather spooky too with his long tongue and ragged appearance, but, unlike Krampus, Belsnickel treats children who have been good with cakes and sweets - though he also beats naughty children with a rod. He was also known as Kriskinkle which is related to another Western name for Santa: "Kris Kringle" which in itself comes from the Christian term "Christkind". The best pop culture reference for the Belsnickel is in The Office episode Dwight Christmas.
The Yule Lads
Sounds like a T-shirt slogan for a Christmas-themed stag do, but actually refer to a group of Icelandic mountain-dwelling creatures who steal and prank people one-by-one over the last 13 nights of Christmas. Like Saint Nicholas, they leave gifts in shoes placed in the window by children - and if the children have been bad, they get potatoes instead. We have no idea why more people haven't heard of these guys.
Also known as Father Frost, Ded Moroz is a Russian folkloric character who wears silver and blue robes and delivers gifts to children on New Year's Eve with the help of his granddaughter Snegurochka, or the Snow Maiden. He is very often conflated with the traditional Western Santa Claus though he is usually depicted as a kind of winter wizard holding a magic staff.
Olentzero is a Basque tradition, and another bringer of gifts - though usually on 24th December (or the 27th or 30th in some areas). He's not the most festive looking character with his very simple attire, but those local to the Basque region often put effigies of Olentzero on display. One of the most popular legends portrays him as a giant embraces Christianity, unlike his fellows, upon the arrival of Christ.
Sinterklaas or Sint-Nicolaas is the Dutch term for Saint Nicholas and he is probably more closely related to the original Saint Nick than our Westernised version. The differences between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus is that he wears a bishop's hat and rides a white horse. Unfortunately, he also has a servant called Zwarte Piet or "Black Pete" who is usually depicted in blackface, so it's not the most politically correct tradition to adopt.
Many Pagans would have you believe that the original source for Santa Claus is the Norse god Wodan, or Odin. Indeed, he is known for his association with Yule and leading the Wild Hunt which is something of a ghostly cavalcade in the sky, with Odin riding his grey horse much like Sinterklaas. The long grey beard is the other noticable similarity. Folklorist Margaret Baker even went as far as to claim that 25th December is Odin's day and that he himself was a gift-bringer.
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