Last night, the young and young at heart turned their eyes anxiously upward in hopes of catching a glimpse of Santa Claus as he flew across the night sky behind his team of magical reindeer. While local onlookers may have searched for a pleasantly plump man wearing a bright red suit, other cultures have different ideas concerning Santa’s appearance. Join The StickerTalk as we reflect on the many faces of Santa Claus!
In America, Santa Claus is best known for his flight around the world on Christmas Eve, climbing down chimneys to deliver toys to well-behaved children and coal to those who were naughty. It is also customary for children to leave milk and cookies for Santa as an expression of gratitude. After completing his tour of deliveries, Santa returns to the North Pole where he lives with his wife, Mrs. Claus, and the elves who help him make toys for all of the children who earn a spot on his nice list. Although this rendering of Santa Claus represents a staple of childhood nostalgia for most of us, you may be intrigued to see what Santa looks like in other countries.
In Italy, Santa Claus takes the shape of a haggard old woman named Befana. Much like the American version Santa, Befana enters homes through the chimney to give presents to nice children and coal to kids whose behavior could use improvement. However, Befana makes her deliveries on Epiphany Eve rather than Christmas Eve and rides a broomstick through the sky instead of employing a team of flying reindeer. According to folklore, Belfana first began to give gifts to the children of Italy after she encountered the three Wise Men on their search for Baby Jesus. The Wise Men were passing by her house and stopped to ask Befana for directions. Although she did not know the way to Bethlehem, Befana provided the Wise Men with food and shelter. Impressed by Befana’s generosity and the tidiness of her home, the Wise Men asked her to accompany them on their journey. Befana declined, but experienced a change of heart after the Wise Men had already departed. She set out to find the Wise Men and Baby Jesus, following the Christmas Star. Legend states that she continues on her search to this day, leaving gifts for children as she seeks the Savior.
For children in French Basque Country, Olentzero is the traditional provider of gifts during the Christmas season. Folklore states that Olentzero was abandoned in the forest as an infant. A beautify fairy rescued the baby and raised him as her own. Olentzero became a master charcoal maker and a skilled craftsman, carving wooden toys for the children of his village. One day Olentzero came into the village to distribute more of his toys when he noticed a house engulfed in flames with children trapped inside. He rushed into the house, saving the children but sacrificing his own life in the process. The benevolent fairy saw Olentzero’s act of heroism and brought him back to life. Now Olentzero makes an annual appearance for the children of Basque Country on Christmas Eve to give away his famous handmade toys.
Sixteenth century Germany saw a paradigm shift in the traditional celebration of Christmas when famed religious reformer Martin Luther stated that the celebration of Santa Claus was equivalent to idolatry. Instead, Luther suggested that the Christkind, or the Christ child, be the central theme of holiday festivities. Originally depicted as a winged boy with blonde hair, the Christkind soon morphed into an angel-like, female character. Today, most German towns select a teenage girl to play the role of the Christkind, outfitting the lucky lady in shimmering robes of gold and white. Although the Christkind, like the American version of Santa, annually delivers presents on Christmas Eve, this holiday figure’s primary purpose is to serve as a symbol of the love of Jesus and hope for humanity.
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- 10 Different Versions of Santa Claus From Around the World – WorldAtlas
- The Story of Befana, The Italian Santa Claus (theculturetrip.com)
- Olentzero: The Basque Christmas Figure (nabasque.eus)
- What is the Christkind? (with pictures) (wise-geek.com)
- Santa Claus: Real Origins & Legend – HISTORY
- When Santa Claus Was Deplored in Wartime – HISTORY