The Santa Claus Tradition Around Europe
Dave Johnson | On 09, Dec 2013
It is fair to say, in the western world at least, that Santa Claus is one of the most recognisable characters ever created, epitomising everything that Christmas means to the millions of children and adults that celebrate the holiday season. The impact his immediately recognisable red coat and white trim has had on multiple generations of families around the world would make leading branding experts salivate and, arguably, no icon has travelled farther and been more widely accepted than old St. Nick.
Like all globally recognised characters however, the traditional image of Santa drew inspiration from the icons that came before him while inspiring many that came after. From Germany’s version of St Nick, who comes accompanied with a drunken child scaring monster known as the Krampus, to the broomstick riding witch La Befana, who is tasked with delivering gifts to the children of Italy, here we count down the five weirdest incarnations of the traditional Father Christmas character from different cultures around the globe.
Sinterklaas – Holland, Belgium, the Netherlands
Looking more like a cross between old man winter and the pope than a traditional Father Christmas, the appearance of Sinterklaas isn’t the only thing that sets him apart from the “Coca-Cola” image of Santa. For one, Sinterklass doesn’t live in the north pole, but instead resides in sunny Spain for the 10 months a year he is out of a job. When the holiday season rolls around, Sinterklass kicks off his flip flops, puts down his margarita and hops on a steamboat which takes him and his companions from Spain to Holland for a full month of gift giving and celebrations.
He is accompanied on this annual pilgrimage by a character known as Black Peter, traditionally played by a man with black face make-up. Traditional versions of the Sinterklass tale say that Black Peter is a slave who was freed by Sinterklass and was so grateful that he stuck around to help him on his gift giving mission. In recent times, a more politically correct version of Black Peter’s story describe him as black from soot after climbing down the chimneys of little boy’s and girl’s houses.
Coastal areas of Holland often celebrate his arrival to the country with a festival. This festival draws international visitors and if you are in Holland during mid November, it is definitely worth taking a look.
Belsnickel – German speaking Europe
In German speaking European countries Belsnickel takes on the role of Santa’s little helper, reporting on the behaviour of children around the world and letting Santa know who is naughty and who is nice. He is traditionally represented as a nomadic traveller wrapped head to toe in animal furs, carrying a large bag in his left hand and a wooden switch in his right.
Unlike the traditional Christmas elves, Belsnickle takes the administration of justice into his own frosty hands by chasing and beating the naughty children with his switch. This tradition is typically carried out a couple of weeks before Christmas, where the Belsnickle character will visit towns and run after the children to scare them into good behaviour.
If visiting Germany during the winter period, December 5th is the day that many of these celebrations take place. It is often marked with parades, music, and hordes of terrified children, a must visit event for those that take joy from the darker side of Christmas traditions.
La Befana – Italy
A key staple of Italian folklore, La Befana is a witch who delivers gifts to the children of Italy on the night of January 5th, known as Epiphany Eve. In a similar style to Santa Claus she flies around on her broomstick delivering gifts into the stockings of good children, while those who misbehave receive coal or a twig. It is also customary to leave her scraps of food and a glass of wine to see her along on her journey and in return she will give the house a quick sweep, said to symbolise new beginnings.
The origins of this legend lay at the beginning of the new testament, during the Three Wise Men’s pilgrimage to visit the newborn baby Jesus. It is believed that they stopped upon her house while looking for a place to rest as her house was widely known as the cleanest and most accommodating lodging in the village. As they leave they invite her on their journey but she declines, preferring to continue with her domestic work. As the days pass she regrets her decision and takes off after the travellers on a flying broomstick. Although she never found the baby or the travellers, she takes comfort in being there for the children of Italy as she believes they each carry a small part of Jesus Christ with them throughout their lives.
As a highly religious country, Italy kicks in to overdrive during the festive season, often ending their celebrations on Epiphany Eve with feasts, music and public celebrations.
Ded Moroz – Russia
Despite having a name that sounds uncomfortably similar to “dead morose” in English, Ded Moroz actually means Father Frost in Russian and it is his job to deliver the festive presents to children during the winter festival period. Unlike Santa Claus, Ded Moroz makes a habit of delivering his presents in person at gatherings held in schools, offices and community centres across the country on New Year’s Eve and the days following it.
Ded Moroz visiting at this time, rather than over the Christmas period, is a hangover from the communist led soviet union who saw new year celebrations as a way to move away from religious winter holidays to a more secular form of celebration.
Ded Moroz is usually found with a magical staff in hand and his beautiful fairy granddaughter Sengurochka (Snow Girl) at his side. He often rides into town on a white horse from his home in Veliky Ustyug, where the local post office is said to have received over two million letters written by Russian Children hoping to contact Ded Moroz since 2003.
Tomte – Sweden
The Tomte is the Swedish version of Santa. Standing at no more than a few feet tall, he is often thought to be a mischievous and fickle little creature and is known for helping home owners with housework and animal keeping during the winter holiday season.
Despite his seemingly sweet appearance, he is also known to have a short temper and to take out his frustrations on local livestock and gardens if he is ever offended. Folklore states that offending the Tomte is quite easy, as he is adverse to any deviation from the traditional way of running a farm. He also expects a bowl of buttery porridge in return for his Christmas gift delivery. If this requirement isn’t satisfied he is known to go so far as murdering livestock and running the offending family out of town.
Interestingly, the Tomte was traditionally viewed as the spirit of the very first owner of the land a farm or house is built upon. This means that not only does the Tomte represent a Santa like figure, but offering gifts to the Tomte is, technically, a modern form of ancestor worship.