★ All Things Christmas! | Traditions & Celebrations Around The World ★
The Story & Origins of Santa Claus
Christmas celebrations are different everywhere, whether it's due to the weather, the variation in folklore and homegrown children's stories, or the creation of unusual traditions over time.
Christmas is an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, however on this page I won't be focusing on the religious aspect of Christmas; instead I will explain the origins of Santa, how Christmas is celebrated around the world, plus I'll introduce you to different Christmas figures from folklore and how they came to be.
...And hopefully this page will get you into the Christmas spirit too!
Books About Christmas Stories & Traditions
Things to do to get in the Christmas Spirit:
- Play in the snow, or get the fake snow out
- Buy outdoor Christmas lights
- Bake a gingerbread house
- Make decorations and tree ornaments
- Cook mince pies or Christmas cake
- Buy Christmas gifts / go Christmas shopping
- Write cards and wrap presents
- Make homemade presents too
- Watch your favourite Christmas films
- Have a hot chocolate with marshmallows
- Light your home fire or have a bonfire
- Relive nostalgia
- Have a browse through Christmas photos
- Watch classic Christmas TV
- Do Christmas activities with your kids e.g. making Christmas lists, reading 'A Night Before Christmas' etc.
- Decorate your home/garden
- Throw a Christmas fancy dress party
Fun & Informative Crimbo Links!
- Track Santa
Every December you can track where Santa is at any given time.
- Christmas Worldwide
Read details on how Christmas is celebrated in different countries.
- Christmas Dishes
Find out the traditional food eaten around the world at Christmas.
- Xmas Across The Globe
Amazing photos from the Big Picture feature on Boston.com.
A Brief History of Santa
Santa Claus Names & Origins
All different versions of 'Santa Claus' are based on Saint Nicholas, who was a Greek Christian bishop of Myra (a place which is now situated in Turkey) in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas was known for his generous gift-giving to poor people, spending his life and inheritance giving to those most in need, usually secretly and anonymously. If people left their shoes out for him, he would put coins inside. If you would like to read more about good old St Nick, click here.
St Nicholas was the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of 'Sinterklaas' in the Netherlands, though there are also influences from other areas of history, folklore, myth and legend. There is a theory that Sinterklaas was partly based on a figure named Odin, who was a God of the Germanic people before they converted from Paganism to Christianity during the Medieval period. Odin rode an 8-legged horse that could jump very large distances, he was understood to have a long beard, and children would fill their boots/shoes with straw, carrots and sugar and place them next to the chimney for Odin's horse around the time Christmas is celebrated now. To thank the children for their help, Odin would replace the straw and food with presents or sweets. This tradition still happens in some places such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
It is believed that 'Santa Claus' was created when 'Sinterklaas' was misheard after the belief was brought to America by Dutch settlers in New York. The 'Santa Claus' was then evolved in America over time to become the now widely-accepted version - the older, bearded man in a red and white suit, with flying reindeer, and who goes down the chimney to deliver gifts. Cartoons and illustrators of children's books and stories are mostly responsible for the changing of the image over the years. Thomas Nast is an American cartoonist who is widely credited with creating the recognized version of Santa (in 1863) that we still see today.
When media such as books and TV became more widespread in the modern age, the image of what is now the most common Santa Claus was spread from America to the rest of the world, and it slowly influenced the Christmas figures in other countries. Father Christmas in the UK was already quite similar in appearance to this American Santa, however his suit was in fact green to start with until the American version became the accepted norm. Father Christmas in Britain was a symbol of good cheer at Christmas, however wasn't originally a gift-giver. It is thought that the American creation of Santa Claus is a mixture of the British Father Christmas, Sinterklaas and St Nicholas.
There are some variations on the widespread American version of Santa though, such as in Finland where the reindeer don't fly, or where Santa is instead St Nikolas and is dressed like a bishop, sometimes with another figure beside him such as Black Peter (Netherlands) or Krampus (Austria, Slovenia & Croatia). Some countries have figures that are significantly different, such as La Befana who is the Italian figure who flies around on her broom delivering gifts.
The name Santa Clause is used in America and Canada mainly, in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries it can be Santa Claus or Father Christmas, in Spain 'Papa Noel' is used and in France 'Pere Noel' is used - both meaning Father Christmas. Other examples include Sinterklaas (Netherlands/Holland), St Nicholas/Nick, Kris Kringle (which originated in Southern Germany), Weihnachtsmann (Germany) and Christkind (Austria). If you would like to read more about the different names, please click here.
Santa Claus is said to bring gifts to the homes of children during the night of December 24th. Santa Claus is mostly believed to live at the North Pole and run a gift-making workshop there with many helpers (magical elves). Santa owns 9 (usually flying) reindeer; Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph, and these reindeer pull Santa around the night skies in a sleigh so he can deliver the gifts into houses by going up and down their chimneys. Santa lists all children as even being 'good' or 'naughty'. The good children receive nice gifts and the naughty children receive a lump of coal. A lot of postal services allow children to send a Christmas present wish list to Santa Claus by mail, and there are some schemes and volunteers in place each year to write back to the children where possible.
If you would like to read more about the origins of Santa, click here.
Having a Christmas tree in the home is a custom which started in Germany in the 16th century, however there are earlier examples from as early as the 15th century in Latvia and Estonia. The custom was only common in certain urban areas of Germany, and didn't really become widespread until much later. The Christmas tree tradition slowly spread to other countries but only became popular from the second half of the 19th century onwards.
A Christmas tree is a decorated evergreen tree such as a fir tree, and can be real or artificial. Traditionally, the trees were decorated with nuts, dates and apples, with wax candles being introduced in the 18th century, but only for those who could afford them. Nowadays, electric lights, tinsel and all kind of decorations are used. A star or angel is placed atop the tree to represent the angels from the Nativity or the Star of Bethlehem.
Christmas trees are put up early-to-mid December usually, and taken down in early January.
Traditions From Around The World
Many of the Christmas traditions are commonly shared across the world, with only very few places not celebrating Christmas at all, such as The Maldives where nearly the entire population is Muslim. But anywhere Christians live, there will be Christmas rituals going on, even where a very a small percentage of the population are Christian. More and more non-Christians take part in a secular (non-religious) celebration of Christmas now, with focus being more on goodwill, gift-giving, decorations, celebrations, food and spending time with family and friends.
Of all the countries to celebrate Christmas, there are usually many shared traditions between them such as: a large traditional meal with family and friends, Christmas trees being lit up, wreaths being made and hung on doors, Nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas stockings (or the equivalent), sending Christmas cards, religious services, gift-giving and lots of music including Christmas carols and hymns.
Christmas is one of the most important dates on the Christian calendar, and there are many other important dates surrounding it, such as Advent, St Stephen's Day, and the Feast of Epiphany. Epiphany (also known as the Three Kings Day) is on January the 6th and is believed to be the day when the three Wise Men (Magi) visited Jesus Christ and Jesus was said to be revealed as the son of God.
In the United States and Canada, Christmas is a very popular holiday which begins around the end of November and ends in the beginning of January. The traditions are very similar to those in the U.K. and in Australia and New Zealand. Houses are decorated inside and out, with a lit-up Christmas tree taking pride of place. Santa Claus (the now widely-accepted version) was created in his final form in America, having been influenced by other gift-giving traditional figures from around the world. The 'American' Santa has a red suit and 9 reindeer, and flies around on Christmas Eve night delivering gifts to the good children. Christmas stockings are left out by children and these are filled overnight by Santa Claus with toys and sweets. Cookies and a glass of milk are left out for Santa, and often a carrot is left out for the reindeer. Family exchange gift on Christmas day, and a large meal is served, usually consisting of roast turkey (or ham or beef), with a variety of vegetables. Many people attend Midnight Mass services on Christmas Eve.
In the areas of Canada where English is the main language, mince pies, plum puddings and Christmas cakes are eaten as desserts and treats, which are a tradition shared with the U.K. Another tradition shared is that of Christmas crackers, which are there for adding fun to the Christmas dinner. The crackers are pulled apart by 2 people to reveal a party hat, a joke and a little game or toy. Canadians believe that Santa lives at the North Pole in Canada rather than the North Pole in the Arctic circle, and Santa even has a Canadian address which kids can send their letters to (zip code HOH OHO no less!) As Christmas falls in the dark Winter, festivals of light are popular in Canada, such as the Cavalcade of Lights Festival in Toronto. In French-speaking Canada (as well as in France), they have a 'réveillon' which is a long dinner lasting until past midnight. Their Father Christmas is called Père Noël and the chocolate Yule log is a traditional symbol. The Queen's (Elizabeth II) speech is televised on Christmas day.
In the U.K. the Christmas season starts at Advent (the closest Sunday to St Andrew's day, 30th November). The last day of Christmas is considered to be Epiphany - January 6th - and it is said to be bad luck to leave the Christmas tree and decorations up after this date. Mince pies and sherry are traditionally left out for Father Christmas, and a carrot is left for the reindeer. Nearly everyone has a day off on Christmas day and the traditional meal is roast turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, potatoes, brussel sprouts and parsnips. Around 7 million people watch the Queen's speech on TV, and TV programmes and films are a big part of the day. Boxing day, the 26th of December, is a bank holiday and is often spent visiting family, and country walks are popular. Christmas cards sent to each other are popular,carol singers in public places or going around people's houses are sometimes seen, and decorations are widespread. Another tradition is the Christmas pantomime, which is a comic theatre play designed for children, where the actors interact with the audience. The pantomimes are usually based on children's stories and fairytales, and often have celebrities cast in main roles. Pantomimes happen in various countries at Christmas, including Australia, Jamaica and Malta. Click here to learn more.
In Ireland, Christmas is the biggest celebration on the calendar and lasts from Christmas Eve (where the working day usually ends at lunch time so people can go for a Christmas drink at the pub!), and ends on the Epiphany (when 'Little Christmas' is celebrated). Midnight Mass services are very popular in Ireland, and because the Irish view this as a time to remember the dead, family members who have passed away are prayed for, and holly wreaths are placed on their graves.
In Australia, Christmas is celebrated in a very similar way to those described above - except, of course, Christmas falls in the middle of summer. This doesn't affect too much, as fake snow and a Santa Claus in a fur suit are still the common symbols of Christmas, however people make the most of the sun and are usually outside at Christmas, whether on the beach or having a Christmas BBQ in their garden. Because of this, TV is not a big part of Christmas at all. The roast dinner is very similar to that of the U.K., although sometimes a lighter meal of fish is served, or they have a BBQ. Although desserts like Christmas pudding are eaten, Pavlova (meringue, cream and fruit) is a popular choice. With regards to celebrations, there is a Christmas parade in the city of Adelaide which is the biggest of its kind in the world, and Carols by Candlelight is a long-held tradition in Melbourne where people gather outdoors to sing carols by candlelight. There are events held on Bondi Beach too, sometimes including a surfing Santa! In New Zealand, Christmas is very similar, with parades and Carols by Candlelight events also occurring.
Italian Christmas: The above photo shows Befana, who is an important Christmas figure in Italy. La Befana is usually depicted as a scary-looking old woman on a broom, and she delivers gifts to children on the night of the 5th of January (i.e. the night before Epiphany). The story goes that on the way to deliver their gifts to baby Jesus, the three Wise Men stopped off at an old lady's house and asked her if she wanted to go with them, and she declined. However, she then changed her mind and took off on her broomstick to find them. She got lost and now flies around leaving children presents in the hope that she can find the baby Jesus. La Befana leaves gifts in children's socks that they leave out for her on the 5th. Besides La Befana, Italy also has Babbo Natale, which is a very similar figure to the American Santa Claus. Depending on the region of Italy, gifts can be given on St Lucy's Day (13th December), Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Epiphany, although Babbo Natale usually visits on the night of Christmas Eve. Children are often visited by both Babbo Natale and by La Befana - lucky kids! Christmas decorations, tree and nativity scenes are put up on December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), which is a national holiday. Christmas is celebrated in a similar way to other countries in West Europe. On Christmas Eve, like many other countries, it is quite common to go to a midnight mass service at Church.
St. Nikolaus & Krampus
Christmas Logs (Caga Tió)
Catalonia is an area of Spain which contains the city of Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain. One unusual Catalan tradition is the Caga Tió, which is a Yule log character with a smiley face and a red hat. The strange thing about this 'creature' is that it poops sweets when you hit it with a stick!
The Caga Tió (also called the Tió de Nadal ) appears in the home 2 to 4 weeks before Christmas and in the lead up to the big day, the Caga Tió must be fed and looked after by feeding it with festive treats such as sweets and nuts, and keeping it warm with a big blanket. The better you care for the Caga Tió, the better your presents will be.
On Christmas Eve (or Christmas day), children hit Caga Tió with a stick whilst singing various songs about the log. Caga Tió then 'poops' treats and sweet foods, which are revealed after the song is sung by lifting up the blanket laid over the log. Once all treats have been delivered, Caga Tió can then 'poop' something not so tasty such as a salt herring or an onion to signify the end of the gift-giving. You can have a look at the traditional song (and hitting!) in action by watching this.
Facts & Unusual Christmas Traditions
People all around the world celebrate Christmas differently - for instance, this photo shows Christmas in Australia, which is a bit different to Christmas in the UK I can tell you! Different countries have different traditions, whether they are funny, strange, new or traditional.
Traditional Christmas Dinner
Mmmm...tasty! This is pretty much what I tuck into for Christmas dinner here in the UK, although I would have cranberry rather than bread sauce :)
If you'd like to read about Christmas dishes worldwide, please click here.
Santacon Flash Mob
Get Your Pets Involved!
Get Into The Christmas Spirit!
Yule goats are made of straw and are tied with red ribbons. They are traditional decorations in Scandinavia (usually found on or under the Yule/Christmas tree), and there are even giant Yule Goat sculptures erected each year (although vandals often set them on fire!)
Note: Scandinavia includes the countries Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as they all have a common Germanic heritage and related languages.
The Yule Goat is one of the oldest symbols/traditions of Christmas in Scandinavian and Northern European countries. The origin of the Yule Goat could be a mixture of things. For instance, in pre-Christian times, a goat was traditionally slaughtered during the Germanic pagan festival of Yule. Also, the God 'Thor', who was a God of the Pagan religion, was depicted riding through the skies on a cart pulled by 2 goats.
Originally, in Finland, the Yule Goat started as an ugly, evil creature who would scare children and demand gifts for himself at Christmas time. However, in Scandinavia, the Yule Goat was considered a helpful, invisible creature that appeared before Christmas to ensure that the preparations for Yule were done correctly. Both of these versions gradually changed in the 19th century to become a giver of gifts instead, and the tradition of a male family member dressing up as the Yule Goat to give out the presents began. At the end of that century, this tradition was replaced by the now-recognised figure of Santa Clause (with only a few differences) - although in Finland the word for Santa is 'Joulupukki' which literally translates to 'Yule Goat'.
If you would like to read more about the Yule Goat, click here.