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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus crisscrosses the globe, bringing presents to reward children for their good behavior. Just like that special night, Santa is everywhere during the Christmas season: in shopping malls and holiday parades, on your ugly sweater and your can of Coca-Cola.
And while Dec. 25 is the big day here in the States, the billions of people celebrating around the world hold many different traditions and rituals. Some have a different name for Santa Claus, and some have a different cast of characters, even a different holiday story or a different holiday altogether.
Here’s a look at some of the unique Yuletide traditions from around the world.
UNITED STATES: SANTA CLAUS
Before we dive into all of the differences of Christmas traditions across the globe, let’s spell out the basics that most Americans grew up with and still cherish today. Santa Claus as Americans know him stems from the lore of St. Nicholas. He was born in 280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas became a legend for giving away his inherited wealth and committing his life to travelling the world helping people who couldn’t provide for themselves.
As the years went on his story spread and St. Nicholas became known as a protector of children and one of the world’s most popular saints.
As the centuries passed, the legend of St. Nicholas developed a life of its own, eventually claiming the North Pole has his headquarters and using magic reindeer and a team of helpful elves to deliver gifts to children around the world.
But Santa as we know him didn’t jump from the third century to the North Pole. It took centuries and changes to become jolly old St. Nick.
The Santa legend is firmly rooted in the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. The name is a shortened version of Saint Nicholas. According to Dutch tradition, Nick wears bright red bishop’s robes — not a coat and pants — with a majestic white beard.
And instead of a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse. To celebrate, Dutch children sing special songs and put their shoes next to a window or a door, along with a wish list and a carrot or hay and water for his horse. Sound familiar? Sinterklaas also leaves treats and gifts in the shoes but is known to leave coal or a bag of salt for kids who behaved poorly or forgot to sing their Sinterklaas songs.
Sinterklaas doesn’t have elves, but some say he has a special helper named “Zwarte Piet” — which translates to Black Pete. The sidekick helps Sinterklaas hand out his gifts, but the tradition has come under serious criticism in recent years, pushing back against the blackface character. Zwarte Piet was first popularized in the mid-19th century, before the Netherlands abolished slavery.
To date, the Dutch community still wrestles with the concept of Zwarte Piet. Many people have come out publicly against the character that they consider racist and has roots in the slave trade. Others consider it a part of Dutch culture that is misunderstood by “outsiders.”
Another key difference? In the Netherlands, the big day isn’t Dec. 25 but on Dec. 6, marking the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death.
CENTRAL EUROPE: SVATY MIKULAS & KRAMPUS
Most families across Central Europe also celebrate St. Nicholas. In places like Slovakia, Hungary, Germany and Poland, children get excited for Svaty Mikulas (sounds an awful lot like Nicholas).
Like in the Netherlands, Dec. 6 is the Day of St. Mikulas. Children go to sleep on Dec. 5 with their boots next to their windows. If they behaved well in the last year, they would wake up to sweet treats like chocolates or clementine oranges.
In this region, Svaty Mikulas travels with a dastardly companion named Krampus. The half-goat, half-demon monster serves as the devil to Svaty Mikulas’ angelic persona. While Mikulas gives gifts, legend says Krampus doles out punishments, including some that wouldn’t pass parenting classes nowadays.
Many people in Germany and Austria will participate in Krampuslauf — translated to the Krampus run. Around Dec. 5, also known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night, people will dress up as the creature and chase people through the streets.
RUSSIA & EASTERN EUROPE: DED MOROZ & SNEGUROCHKA
Ded Moroz — or Father Frost — serves as the Russian version of Santa Claus. He is not tied to St. Nicholas, but he has donned the bright red robes and white, flowing beard.
In traditional Slavic mythology, Ded Moroz was depicted as a wizard or a demon and was sent to kidnap naughty children. However, his personality softened over the generations. Now, Ded Moroz and his companion, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden, deliver presents to kids across the region.
The Russian government used the legend of Ded Moroz to help reshape society during times of major change. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Ded Moroz was banned because of its religious ties. Josef Stalin eventually brought back Ded Moroz, but a more Soviet-friendly edition. The government changed the typical iteration of Father Frost to a more slender and taller version of Santa Claus. They also made his suit blue to stand out from the “capitalist” Santa. To distance its traditions away from religion, Ded Moroz now brings presents on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Eve.
SCANDINAVIA: JULTOMTEN, JULENISSEN & THE JULBOCK
In Scandinavia, many kids look forward to a visit from Jultomten. He shares many of the same characteristics of Santa Claus — the man in the red suit who brings gifts to kids — but also has ties to local folklore.
Jultomten comes from the legend of the tomte — a dwarf-like figure that helped around farms and fended off “bad luck.” It also draws from the pagan Yuletide celebrations to mark the winter solstice and the “rebirth of the sun.”
Traditions in Norway are almost a mirror image. Instead, they celebrate with Julenissen, the Christmas pixies taken from the Norwegian folklore of the Nisse.
Many Scandinavian communities also still celebrate the holidays with a julbock. That tradition, most popular in Finland, also has ties dating back more than a thousand years. In pagan times, a bock — or a male goat — had a special place in communities because the Norse god Thor rode in a chariot pulled by two goats.
The julbock is a decoration of straw woven into the shape of a goat. Many people will dress up as a julbock to deliver presents for the holidays and they are still common Christmas decorations.
ICELAND: THE YULE LADS
Iceland’s unique tradition doesn’t focus on a Santa Claus-type figure but his elves. Instead of one head elf, Iceland believes in the Yule Lads — 13 merry, but mischievous elves.
The Yule Lads aren’t solely in the business of presents; they are also in the business of pranks. Each lad has its own favorite prank. For example, Kertasnikir likes to steal candles. Giljagaur likes to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk, and Hurdaskellir likes to slam doors in the middle of the night.
For the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, Icelandic children place their shoes by the windowsill in hopes that the Yule Lads will leave them small gifts or treats. However, if children have been naughty, the lads have been known to leave rotten potatoes instead.
ITALY: LA BEFANA
In the U.S., spooky season wraps up in November. Not so in Italy. La Befana is a Christmas tradition that feels more like Halloween.
La Befana is a kind witch who flies around on her broomstick. Her legend has been found back as far as the 8th century. Legend says while searching for the newborn Jesus, the three wise men found La Befana’s house, and she offered them shelter. In turn, they invited her to join them on their journey. She declined but later changed her mind and tried to catch up with the wise men. Unfortunately, she never found her way to Bethlehem.
Now, on the Eve of the Epiphany — Jan. 5 — La Befana flies over Italy, looking for baby Jesus. On her voyage, she stops by homes and gives toys and treats to good children and leaves coal for the naughty ones.
SPAIN: LOS REYES MAGOS
Communities in Spain and many other Spanish-speaking countries center their holidays around the Day of Epiphany and the three wise men. But there’s no witches here.
The Day of Epiphany is 12 days after Jesus’ birth and marks the day the three wise men reached Bethlehem to see the Messiah. On the eve of the Epiphany, many communities hold parades to “welcome the magi,” including dancers and musicians who throw candies to the crowd.
The Day of Epiphany — also referred to as Three Kings’ Day — is celebrated much like Christmas Day in the U.S. The night before, kids leave out treats for the three wise men and hay or stray for their camels. The kings leave presents under the tree — gifts for the good kids and coal for the naughty ones — and families celebrate together with a holiday feast.
Beyond Santa Claus: Exploring Christmas traditions from around the world
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