As Christmas movies and Christmas songs become increasingly popular, Santa is becoming a universal gift giving figure. However there are many countries that are yet to adopt the very-American figure.
Belarus, Belgium (Flemish & Waloon regions), Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine
Although he’s the inspiration behind Santa Claus or Father Christmas, there are still some countries that favour the traditional historical figure over the fictional Americanised character.
Saint Nicholas was a bishop from Myra, which is now part of modern day Turkey. There are many legends about his generosity and kindness – enough to deem him a saint!
Most modern depictions of the Christmas character are much more saintly than that of Santa Claus. For example, the Dutch Sinterklaas dresses as a Bishop and rides a white horse. In most countries, he visits on St Nicholas’ Eve (5th December) and brings presents for children to open the next morning.
Thanks to inspiration Santa Claus took from St Nicholas, and the rising popularity of the former, the differences between the two are becoming less and less distinct.
Father Christmas/Santa Claus
Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, UK, Montenegro
St Nicholas became unpopular as a Christmas figure following the 16th century reformation in northern Europe (keep reading to hear about how this also helped birth Christkind). To replace him, the UK came up with Father Christmas, and the French, Père Nöel. The name Santa Claus did not appear until hundreds of years later, and is the americanised pronunciation of Sinterklaas. Interestingly, this is not the only of Santa’s names that comes from americanised European words (again, look to Christkind for more information).
It would be wrong to say that no other country (other than those listed) has Father Christmas bring gifts, at best, he his appearance has crept into traditions, and at worst, he has helped younger generations to forget centuries-old traditions.
This Christmas gift bringer is exclusive to Serbia, emerging during the mid-20th century – meaning he is actually predated by Santa. He fulfills a similar purpose, although his gifts aren’t as expensive. However, he makes sure to gift the entire family, Grandmas can expect a litre of oil and a pound of flour.
Christmas brother comes from the mountains of Western/Central Serbia, and is drawn by a carriage with two horses – one black, the other white. His appearance is much more human than that of Santa, looking much more like a traditional old Serbian man than a mythical character. Instead of red (which you are unlikely to see any Serbian elderly man wearing), his suit is made of a brown colour scheme – ranging from beige to dark green.
Info from: https://bozicbata.weebly.com/
Belarus, Bosnia, Estonia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria
Grandfather frost takes his roots in Slavic pagan mythology, predating Christianity. He is believed to be the wizard of winter – described by pagans as a demon (a term that in those days came with a neutral connotation). Depending on where you are, the wizard sometimes delivers gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Eve. He is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka. Featured in several fairy tales, Snegurochka is made of snow. During the festive season many young girls enjoy dressing as the companion of Grandfather Frost.
The character bears a resemblance to Santa, with a white beard and winter boots, but instead of red, he is commonly depicted in blue. The mythical character takes inspiration from Russian noblemen, wearing a long, sometimes gold or white embroidered, blue, fur lined coat, a fur hat, and he carries a magic staff. He rides a Russian-sleigh, called a troikq, which is pulled by 3 white horses.
Just as Santa’s workshop is believed to be in Lapland or the North Pole, Grandfather Frost has several believed homes. One of which you can visit in Russia – Veliky Ustyug.
Over the last few decades, Grandfather Frost has had to compete more and more with the western character of Santa Claus.
St. Basil of Caesarea
Instead of popular St Nicholas, Greeks prefer to celebrate Saint Basil of Caesarea. A 4th century figure, he is remembered for his kindness and generosity – especially towards children. His feast day is celebrated on New Years Day and thus this is the day that (traditionally) Greeks have associated with gift giving (rather than Christmas).
However, as with many characters on this list, his popularity has declined in recent years, as younger generations increasingly favour Santa Claus over the traditional gift giving figure. The change in popularity has also had an effect on Christmas Day, as it has become more commonplace to exchange gifts on the 25th rather than the 1st. Despite this, St Basil’s legend lives on as his Saint Day is widely celebrated, and many associate Santa Claus with him rather than St Nicholas.
Baby Jesus & Christkind
Baby Jesus – Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland
Christkind – Austria & Germany
The idea of a holy child bringing gifts to children was introduced by Martin Luther hundreds of years ago. Martin Luther rejected the worship of saints, and so wanted an individual who would replace the gift bringer St Nicholas. Thus came the Christ Child figure, originally an asexual angel, who later in some regions merged into becoming a representation of baby Jesus, in accordance with the nativity story.
In other places, it became more associated with Angel Gabriel, giving way to the Austrian & German character Christkind (sound strangely similar to Kris Kringle?). The character wears a dress with blond hair and gold wings. In fact, one of the most famous Christmas markets, Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, is named after the character. You are more likely to find Christ Child characters over St Nicholas, in the Catholic, southern parts of Germany.
North Italy, Spain, Switzerland
A largely Spanish tradition, the gift bringing from the Three Kings (or Los Reyes Magos) is a tradition hundreds of years old. The traditional day for Melchior, Gaspar, and Baltasar to visit is the 6th of January, the day they are supposed to have arrived to see the baby Jesus. For some families, this day is far more of a celebratory occasion than Christmas day. However, despite the belief in Santa only becoming commonplace in the last few decades, some families have replaced Los Reyes on the 6th for Santa on the 25th. There are no set rules in how the family celebrates the festive season, and many fall between these two lines. It really depends on the household rather than the town or region.
We all know about the elves that help Santa in his workshop, but they don’t take centre stage in most countries as much as they do in Scandinavia. Otherwise known as nisse (Norway) or tomte (Sweden) these folklore characters predate Santa and many more Christmas traditions.
Centuries ago, it was believed that gnomes guarded the house and land against evil. The way that they treated you would depend on how good or bad you were. Some punishments included sitting on your head while you slept to give you nightmares. They were described as older men, about the same size as a child, with a long white beard.
By the mid-1800s, they began to be associated with Christmas and in some cases as Father Christmas’ helpers. Nowadays, there is a specific name for the Christmas gnomes and elves: Julenisse and Jultomte. They Santa inspiration is very clear, as they are depicted as an old, good natured, adult size man with a long white beard and red clothes. Jultomte is accompanied by a Christmas goat, and the goat is now a popular Christmas symbol in Sweden.
Found only in one region of Spain, Olentzero is a Basque character, much more human looking than many gift bringers on this list. The origin of Olentzero is unclear. The explanation of this peasant looking man varies between towns and families. Some of the most common include him being a jentallik (Basque giant) whilst others believe he was a newborn discovered by a fairy. Effigies of the legendary figure are carried through the street on Christmas Eve, to be later burned. Carols are sung and children collect food and sweets much like the American Halloween tradition.
Instead of a chubby, rose cheeked man, some Italians believe in a witch riding a broomstick. She delivers gifts on the night of the 5th of January, the day before the Epiphany. She wears a black shawl over a dress, and is covered in soot from going down chimneys. Similar to Santa, she delivers gifts to good children, and coal to the naughty ones – sometimes garlic and onions too!
Her tale is very similar to the American one of the Russian Babushka: one night, the old woman was visited by the three wise men as they were on their way to visit baby Jesus. They invited her to go with them, but she delayed, later travelling for hundreds of miles trying to catch them up and bring a gift for the new baby. When she arrived in Bethlehem, she not only missed the 3 Kings, but the baby Jesus too.
The final answer…
So… in short: yes. He exists in Europe and is taking over the Christmas scene. However, he is also accompanied by a whole range of other festive characters unique to Europe.
For a full list of European gift bringers visit: https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/giftbringers.shtml