Santa is one of the most iconic figures in American culture. He brings good children presents to open Christmas morning, he occupies malls from November through December, you can write him letters about what you want under the tree. Almost any kid old enough to talk can tell you who Santa is, but the jolly fat man we all know and l
uove takes many unfamiliar forms throughout the world. Santa as we know him evolved in North America from the holiday traditions of immigrants in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so many of these tradition may seem familiar, others may seem odd.
The Netherlands: Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas looks a lot like Santa; an old man with a white beard and traditional red robes, but looks are where the similarities end. Instead of riding on a sleigh from the North Pole, Sinterklaas rides a steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, delivering presents on the night of December 5th. He flies over the country on a white horse, and is accompanied by Zwarte Piet instead of toy-making elves. As in many other European countries, Dutch children leave shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts and candy, and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse. Unlike Santa, Sinterklaas doesn’t deliver the presents himself. Zwarte Piet climbs down the chimney instead, leaving gifts for the nice kids and coal for the naughty ones.
Italy: La Befana
La Befana is a good witch that delivers presents to children in some parts of Italy. According to some stories, La Befana offered shelter to the Three Wise Men during their journey to see Jesus. She is pictured as an old woman who rides a broomstick, wears a black shawl, and carries a big sack of gifts over one shoulder. She also apparently prefers wine to cookies. Accordingly, parents leave a glass of wine out for her to enjoy. Much like Santa, La Befana climbs down the chimney to deliver presents, and doesn’t like being seen. However, unlike Santa, she gives children who see her a good whack on the head with her broom, and even sweeps up on her way out.
France and Belgium: Pere Noel
Pere Noel looks and acts much like our Santa Claus, but has a dark Yuletide counterpart. La Pere Fouettard, apparently a bad guy once upon a time, now works for Pere Noel punishing naughty children as penance for his past misdeeds. On Christmas Eve, children leave out their shoes as gift receptacles, cookies, and carrots and treats for Pere Noel’s trusty steed, a donkey named Gui. If the child has been good, Pere Noel takes the treats and leaves presents and candy. If they have been bad, Pere Fouettard will step in with a whipping or a spanking, as the story goes.
The Jolasveinar are 13 impish creatures that have mostly replaced Santa Claus as holiday gift givers in Iceland. Stories of them range from describing them as irksome pests to beloved deliverers of presents. The Jolasveinar are known for playing pranks, but are generally considered harmless. Descendants of trolls, these rogues are accompanied by the Yuletide Cat. They deliver wonderful gifts to the good children of Iceland the 13 nights leading up to Christmas Eve; the bad kids get potatoes. More recently, the Jolasveinar are viewed like a roving pack of Santas, bringing gifts to the good and leaving only potatoes in the shoes of the naughty.
China and Taiwan: Sheng Dan Lao Ren
While Christmas is not an official holiday in most of China, it is becoming more and more popular. Literally translated as Old Christmas Man, sheng dan lao ren and his “sisters” occupy Chinese malls and shopping centers ready for pictures. Christmas trees and decorations can be seen in many places, as well as wild Santas traveling in packs. In cities like Macau and Hong Kong, Christmas is an official holiday and is celebrated with gusto. Their Christmas celebrations rival our own here in America, and popularity of the holiday is growing.