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The Evolution Continues

In the United States, Saint Nicholas has become associated with Christmas rather than December 6, his traditional feast day, and he has developed into a purely secular figure. The influence of the American press gradually replaced the moralizing attributes of Saint Nicholas with the basically generous character of Santa Claus. In spite of that, the old habit of threatening unruly children with no gifts from Santa Claus persists in popular culture. For example, Santa’s treatment of Henckle the Magician in the animated "Frosty the Snowman" (1969).

The story of Santa Claus continued to evolve. In 1925, since grazing reindeer would not be possible at the North Pole, newspapers revealed that Santa Claus in fact lived in Finnish Lapland. "Uncle Markus", Markus Rautio, who compared the popular "Children's hour" on Finnish public radio, revealed the great secret for the first time in 1927: Santa Claus lives on Lapland's Korvatunturi - "Ear Fell"

The fell, which is situated directly on Finland's eastern frontier, somewhat resembles a hare's ears - which are in fact Santa Claus's ears, with which he listens to hear if the world's children are being nice. Santa has the assistance of a busy group of elves, who have quite their own history in Scandinavian legend.

Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere thus came together and created the whole world's Santa Claus - the ageless, timeless, deathless white-bearded man who gives out gifts on Christmas and always returns to Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland.

Since the 1950s, Santa has happily sojourned at Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi, at times other than Christmas, to meet children and the young at heart. By 1985 his visits to Napapiiri had become so regular that he established his own Santa Claus Office there. He comes there every day of the year to hear what children want for Christmas and to talk with children who have arrived from around the world. Santa Claus Village is also the location of Santa's main Post Office, which receives children's letters from the four corners of the world.

The legend of Santa Claus will continue to grow over time. In the same way that Moore took attributes from Irving, and embellished them, so other additions have been made. These would include the addition of the ninth reindeer (Rudolph — by Robert L. May in 1939), and a wife (invented by Katherine Lee Bates in 1899). It’s fair to assume that further additions will be made in the future.

Other Places, Other Names

Santa is known throughout the world in many different names and many associated legends, such as: Saint Nikolaas (Sinter Klaas) from the Dutch, Father Christmas from the English, Kris Kringle from the Germans, Befana, from the Italians, Bobouschka from the Russians (a grand motherly figure instead of a male).

  • In Switzerland the Christkindl or Christ Child bears gifts. In some towns children await the Holy Child and in others Christkindl is a girl-angel who comes down from heaven bearing gifts.

  • In Austria, December 6 is the day when St. Nicholas and his grotesque assistant, Krampus, may pay a visit. But the gifts are brought on Christmas Eve by the Christkindl. Sometimes the Christkind will even help decorate the Christmas tree before the big Christmas Eve supper, which will probably feature carp as a main course.

  • Père Noël, as Santa Claus is known in France, is a kindly old gentleman with the well-known white beard and red suit trimmed with white fur. He travels through the countryside on Christmas Eve and leaves gifts in the sabots, or traditional wooden shoes, left out for him by the children. Pere Noel who travels with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre (or Pere) Fouettard. Pre Fouettard reminds Pere Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. In some parts of France Pere Noel brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. In other places it is le petit Jesus who brings the gifts. In one area of France, Père Noël may have some competition from Aunt Airie, a fairy who wears a cape, travels with a donkey, and also gives out gifts

  • Throughout Scandinavia, there was a widely believed superstition that there were tiny magical creatures called nisse, who lived in attics and cellars and brought good luck into a household. With the growing popularity of Santa Claus and other holiday gift-bearers, the Scandinavians felt that they needed a similar figure, so they gave the nisse a red suit and a long white beard and called him Julenisse. In Denmark, the jolly bringer of gifts is known as Julemanden and arrives in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, a sack over his back. He is assisted with his Yuletide chores by elves called Juul Nisse, who are said to live in attics. Children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding for them and are delighted to find the food gone on Christmas morning. In Norway, the popularity of Santa Claus has resurrected an ancient Norse figure called Julesvenn. In ancient times he would come during the feast of Jul to hide lucky barley stalks around the house. Now he comes on Christmas Eve to bring gifts to good children. In Sweden, gifts are brought by the Jultomen, a gnome who lives in the barn, if there is one.

  • According to legend, the Italian La Befana was an old woman from Palestine who refused an offer to go with the Magi to see the baby Jesus because she had too much housework to do. A few hours after they left, she changed her mind, but it was too late to catch up with them. Ever since, La Befana, which means "The Epiphany" in Italian, wanders throughout Italy on January 5th in search of the Christ Child. In her travels, she stops at all the houses of the children and leaves presents for them to make up for not having joined the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem.

  • Very similar to the legend of La Befana, the Russian Babushka was a witch-like old woman who gave the Magi wrong directions on their trip to Bethlehem. In order to atone for her trick, she was condemned to roam around Russia on Epiphany Eve, giving presents to all good children. Babushka was very popular in Russia until the Communist Revolution, after which she was outlawed due to her religious association.

  • In response to this, the Russians developed another gift-bearer, Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, who along with his niece, the Snow Maiden, go from house to house on New Year´s Day, delivering presents and spreading holiday cheer. With the fall of the Communist regime, Babushka has returned in a limited role, and all three characters are now involved in holiday gift-giving.

  • The population of Japan is less than 1% Christian, but that hasn't stopped them from adopting many Western Christmas traditions, including exchanging gifts. The Japanese have even come up with their own gift-bearer, Hoteiosho. Patterned after Santa Claus, he is an all-seeing old priest who carries a sack full of presents from house to house every Christmas Eve.

  • The most unusual gift-givers may be found in parts of north-eastern Portugal, however. They are teen-age boys who participate in a Christmas festival, Festas dos Rapazes, that is part initiation rite. The boys, wearing masks and multi-colored costumes, go house-to-house giving gifts. Sometimes they also perform satirical plays. When the festivities are over, they have attained their status as men in the community.

  • Largely English, Father Christmas. Generally a bearded old man in fur costume who appears in Yuletide and gives presents. Incorporates many traditions from different European countries and also newer American customs. The characteristics can be divided roughly into three groups: Those with traditional religious significance, those with trad but pagan origin and those needed for the plot only (logical fill-ins for the continuity of the story). Today, Father Christmas visits all the houses on Christmas Eve and fills each child's stocking with presents. He rides a white donkey or a white goat. Father Christmas is depicted wearing long robes with sprigs of holly in his long white hair. Letters are sent to him by children who want to make sure he has got their order right. These letters are not mailed though; they are thrown into the fireplace. If they go up the chimney, the wish will be granted; if not, one's wish goes ungranted. Stockings are hung by the chimney or at the foot of the child's bed to receive small presents, which are opened Christmas morning.

  • In Holland, St. Nicholas comes on the last Saturday of November by steamer. As he comes into the port of Amsterdam, all business and traffic stops as the people pour out to greet him. He disembarks with his servant Black Peter and riding his white horse. He is dressed in traditional bishop's robes while Black Peter wears Spanish (Moorish) attire. They are greeted by the mayor and lead a great parade through the streets to the royal palace. Here all the royal children are waiting and must give accounts of their behavior over the past year, just as all Dutch children must do. After the princes and princesses have proved their worth, the parade continues to a major hotel, where St. Nicholas will establish his headquarters for the season. December 5, St. Nicholas' Eve, is when the presents are exchanged. The presents are called "surprises" because they are disguised as much as possible to make the final discovery more delightful. A small gift may be wrapped inside a huge box, or hidden inside a vegetable, or sunk in a pudding. A large gift may lurk in the cellar with clues to its location. All surprises must be accompanied by a bit of verse. On Christmas itself, there are no presents.

  • Joulupukki is the name of Father Christmas in Finland. Literally: Yule Buck. Old pagan traditions lived on in Finland and never faded but got gradually a Christian flavor (elsewhere in Europe, too). The shortest days of the year are in December and pagan peoples used to have big festivities to ward of evil spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them, not to cause havoc. The Christmas Goat used to frighten the kids and was in every way very loathsome. 

    The popular radio programs from the year 1927 onwards probably had great influence in formatting the concept with Santa-like costume, reindeers and Korvatunturi (Mount Ear, near Polar Circle) as its dwelling place. Because there really are reindeers in Finland, the popular American cult took root in Finland very fast. Maybe the Joulupukki is a little bit more fearsome than Santa Claus, though. Finland is one of the few countries where kids customarily do see Father Christmas in the act of delivering the presents (a hired Santa or Grandpa) and one of few where the Saint asks the kids if they did behave during the year.

Other names and traditions throughout the world:

  • In Brazil and Peru, he's called Papa Noel.

  • In Costa Rica, Colombia, and parts of Mexico, the gift bringer is el Nino Jesus, "the infant Jesus."

  • In Puerto Rico, children receive gifts from the Three Kings on January 6th. Each child puts grass under their bed for the camels and in the morning the grass is replaced with gifts.

  • In the Netherlands, he is called Kerstman

  • In Spain the children the night of January 5th put their shoes under the Christmas tree and have presents from the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos: Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar).

  • Santa Claus is called Papa Noel and there are children who have presents both days on December 24th (from Papa Noel) and on January 5th (from the Three Kings).

  • In Japan, he is called Jizo.

  • Black Peter, St Nick's helper which originates from Morocco or Liberia

  • In China, he is called Shengdan Laoren or Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Christmas Old Man."

Barbara Hallman Kissinger in Christmas Past (Pelican Publishing Company, 2005), has a terrific section on "gift givers" in Europe. It is recommended.


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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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