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Santa Around the World: Gift Givers from Other Nations
Every child around the globe knows this ritual well:
It is a winter night. The gift-giver is coming. Leave out a snack and go to sleep. Have sweet dreams, because when you wake, there will be presents waiting for you on this special morning. In the United States, we know the gift-giver as Santa Claus, and he comes on December 24, Christmas Eve. Children who wonder how Santa can make his trip around the world in just one night may be interested to know that he many helpers. Across the world there are many different characters that play the part of gift-giver during the Christmas season. They do not all come on the same night, but they each play their part in filling the hearts of children with wonder.
Before there was Santa Claus, there was St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived during the fourth century A.D. in what is now part of Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, he gave away huge portions of his inheritance to the poor and needy. He was known for hiding gold coins in the stockings of poor people; this is where the tradition of Christmas stockings came into being.
While St. Nicholas is the precursor to Santa Claus, he differs in several important ways. Santa Claus is dressed in a red fur suit and he has a sled and reindeer. St. Nicholas travels by boat, and he is dressed like a Greek Orthodox Bishop. Santa Claus has elves to help him. St. Nicholas travels with a servant named Black Peter, who often carries sticks or switches. In many European countries, including The Netherlands, St. Nicholas makes his appearance on December 5, his traditional feast day. Children place one shoe in front of the fireplace filled with sugar or carrots to feed St. Nicholas' horse. The next morning, St. Nicholas will leave candy or presents in the shoe. In many European countries, St. Nicholas is written or pronounced Sinterklass. When the traditions came over to America, the name slowly evolved into Santa Claus.
The Christ Child
During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther decided that the tradition of having a saint deliver presents to children needed to be discouraged. He promoted instead the idea that the person who gave out presents in December was not St. Nicholas, or Sinterklass, but the Christ Child himself. In accordance with this change in tradition, the traditional day of gift giving became Christmas Eve. The Christ Child, also called the Christkind, or Krist Kindle, is still considered to be the person who gives presents in many countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, much of eastern Europe and several countries in Latin America. The Christ Child is typically depicted as a blonde, angelic child.
The Three Kings
In many Spanish-speaking countries, one of the most highly anticipated days for children is not the Feast of St. Nicholas or Christmas Eve. Instead, they wait excitedly for January 6, the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. The Christian tradition states that wise men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem, where they found the baby Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. While the bible does not state that there were exactly three wise men, and does not refer to them as royalty, it has become customary to regard them as three kings, named Kaspar, Baltasar and Melchior. In Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America, children write down the names of the presents they wish to receive from the kings, and on the evening of January 5 they lay the list in a box filled with grass. Then they place the box under their beds and go to sleep. The next morning, the Three Kings, also known as Los Reyes Magos, will take away the grass and leave presents instead.
In Italy, gifts are given by La Befana, an old woman who is said to have given shelter to the Wise Men when they came through her village while searching for the Christ Child. After spending the night in her home the Wise Men invited La Befana to come with them to see the Child, but she demurred, stating that she had too many chores to do. After they left, she saw the star of Bethlehem in the sky and left her home with gifts for the child, They say she wanders to this day, giving presents to the children that she sees, in hopes of finding Jesus. La Befana, like the Three Kings, traditionally leaves her gifts on Epiphany rather than Christmas.
In many Slavic countries, including Russia and Belarus, the winter gift-giver is Ded Moroz, also known as Grandfather Frost. This guy is not one to sneak around in the middle of the night; he arrives in broad daylight and gives presents in person during the New Year. Ded Moroz is a legendary character first presented in Slavic mythology as a winter demon who would kidnap children and hold them for ransom. However, as the Orthodox church became prevalent in Russia, Ded Moroz began to resemble Sinterklaas, and by the end of the 19th century he was known for giving presents on New Year's Day.
Christmas traditions were discouraged directly after the Russian Revolution, but his popularity remained widespread, and continues to this day.
Where to find some of the gift givers around the world
Christkind (The Christ Child)
Los Reyes Magos - The Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings)