Christmas gift-bringer

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A number of Midwinter or Christmas traditions in European folklore involve gift-bringers. Mostly involving the figure of a bearded old man, the traditions have mutually influenced one another, and have adopted aspects from Christian hagiography, even before the modern period. In Slavic countries, the figure is mostly Father Frost. In Scandinavia, it is an elf-like figure or tomten who comes at Yule (and who sometimes also takes the form of a goat). In Western Europe, the figure was also similar to an elf, developing into Father Christmas in the modern period in Great Britain. In German-speaking Europe and Latin Europe, it became associated with the Christian Saint Nicholas.

In some parts of Central Europe, there is a separate tradition of a young child or fairy-like being bringing presents, known as Christkind.

From these European traditions, the North American figure of Santa Claus developed, beginning in the 1820s. The American figure in turn had considerable influence on the various European traditions during the 20th century.


An 1886 depiction of Odin by Georg von Rosen.

The origin of the Christian gift-bringer figures in European folklore are clearly pre-Christian, more specifically connected with the Yule (midwinter) festival in Germanic paganism. and are often associated with the figure of Odin (Wodanaz), the leader of the Wild Hunt at the time of Yule.[1]

Santa Claus's reindeer has also been compared to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin in Norse mythology.[2]

Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) traces the threatening or scary companions of Saint Nicholas (such as the Krampus of the Austro-Bavarian dialect region) to Christianized versions of house-spirits (kobolds, elves).

After Christianization, the benign mid-winter gift-bringer was associated with the 4th-century Christian Saint Nicholas of Myra. This association took place mainly in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, including German-speaking Europe, the Low Countries, the Czech lands, Hungary and Slovenia. The basis of this association is that Saint Nicholas was noted for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.[3]

European folklore[edit]

There are numerous traditions of Christmas gift-bringers in European folklore. They can be loosely classified in variations of an "Old Man" (Old Man Winter, Father Christmas), and a "child" or "girl" tradition. The "Old Man" is frequently syncretised with the hagiographical traditions of Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil.

In some countries, these traditions co-exist. In Italy, there is Babbo Natale ("Father Christmas") and La Befana (similar to Santa Claus; she rides a broomstick rather than a sleigh, but is not considered a witch) besides Santa Lucia ("Saint Lucy," a blind old woman who on December 13 brings gifts to children in some regions, riding a donkey) and Gesù bambino ("Child Jesus"). In many parts of Switzerland, and even the Italian city Trieste, Saint Nicholas is also celebrated on December 6. Saint Lucy brings gifts to children on the eve of her feast day—December 13—in Udine, Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lodi, Mantova, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Verona and Western Trentino.

Slovenia has Sveti Miklavž or Sveti Nikolaj (Saint Nicholas) on 6 December, Božiček on 24 December and Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Winter) on 31 December.

Old Man figure[edit]

The "Old Man Winter" traditions are widespread in Germanic Europe and Slavic Europe, and adjacent regions Finland, the Baltic, the Balkans, the Caucasus.

Eastern Europe[edit]

Russian Ded Moroz at his residence in Veliky Ustyug.

Ded Moroz or "Father Frost" is the Slavic name of this figure

Main articles: Father Christmas and Ded Moroz
  • Albania: "Babadimri"
  • Armenia: Կաղանդ պապիկ Kaghand Papik ("Grandfather Frost"), who is associated with New Year, and is not related to Christmas.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Djeda Mraz ("Grandfather Frost"); Djed Božićnjak or Božić Bata for Christians, and Djed Mraz for Muslims and others.
  • Bulgaria: Дядо Коледа ("Grandfather Christmas"), Дядо Мраз ("Grandfather Frost") in the past, said to live in Town of Velikiy Ustjug in Vologda region
  • Croatia: Djed Božičnjak ("Grandfather Christmas") or Djed Mraz ("Grandfather Frost"); Mali Isus ("Baby Jesus") for religious Christians, Sveti Nikola ("Saint Nichlaus") bringing gifts or rod on December the 6th
  • Greece: Άγιος Βασίλης (Agios Vasilis, "Saint Basil"); in Greek folklore this character sometimes brings gifts in New Year's Eve rather than Christmas, as Basil is venerated on January 1.
  • Latvia: Ziemassvētku vecītis ("Christmas old man")
  • Lithuania: Kalėdų Senelis ("Christmas Grandfather")
  • Macedonia: Дедо Мраз / Dedo Mraz
  • Romania, Moldova: Moş Crăciun ("Old Man Christmas"); Moş Nicolae ("Old Man Nicholas"); Moş Gerilă ("Old Man Frost")
  • Russia: Дед Мороз (Ded Moroz, "Grandfather Frost"); Чысхаан, (Chyskhaan) "Lord of the Cold", Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Yamal Iri ("Grandpa of Yamal")
  • Serbia: Дедa Мрaз / Deda Mraz (Ded Moroz, "Grandfather Frost"); Божић Бата / Božić Bata ("Christmas Brother")
  • Slovenia: Božiček or Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Winter). Božiček on December 24 and Dedek Mraz on December 31.
  • Ukraine: Святий Миколай / Svjatyj Mykolaj on December 18 and Did Moroz / Дід Мороз on December 31.

Related figures are found in Albania, Plaku i Vitit te Ri ("Old Man Of The New Year"), and Armenia Ձմեռ Պապիկ (Dzmer Papik "Grandfather Winter") or Կաղանդ Պապա (Kaghand Papa "Father Christmas" or "Father New Year"), in Georgia: თოვლის ბაბუა, თოვლის პაპა (Tovlis Babua, Tovlis Papa "Snow Grandfather").

Northern Europe[edit]

The Scandinavian figure is named for Yule.

Western Europe[edit]

Main article: Father Christmas

The "old man" figure is named for Christmas in Western Europe.

Association with Saint Nicholas[edit]

Main articles: Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas

The association of the "Old Man Winter" figure with the Christian Saint Nicholas is most common in Central Europe, but is found as far east as in the Ukraine and as far west as in the Netherlands.

  • Czech Republic: Svatý Mikuláš ("Saint Nicholas") - he brings gifts in evening of December 5, day before his holiday. He often gives sweets and fruits (for nice kids) and potatoes and coal (for naughty kids); Ježíšek (diminutive form of Ježíš ("Jesus")
  • Hungary: Similar to the Czech Republic, the Mikulás ("Nicholas"); Télapó ("Old Man Winter") brings gifts in evening of December 5, day before his holiday, mostly candies for nice kids and virgács, potatoes and coal for naughty kids.
  • Slovenia: Sveti Miklavž or Sveti Nikolaj (Saint Nicholas), on December 6.
  • Switzerland: Samichlaus; Christkind
  • Ukraine: Святий Миколай, Sviaty Mykolay ("Saint Nicholas"), or simply Миколай, Mykolay ("Nicholas")
  • Poland: Święty Mikołaj / Mikołaj ("Saint Nicholas"); Gwiazdor in some regions


Main article: Christkind

In Bavaria, Austria and neighbouring areas (Hungary, Bohemia, Luxembourg, eastern Switzerland plus Liechtenstein), the Christkind ("Christ child"; Czech Ježíšek "child Jesus"; Hungarian Jézuska or Kis Jézus "child Jesus") brings gifts in the evening of 24 December (which differs from Santa Claus's bringing presents during the night between December 24 and 25th); children are already unwrapping gifts on Christmas Eve. The figure is interpreted as the baby Jesus in some traditions, but in others it is a female child or angel-like figure.

Reception outside of Europe[edit]

North America[edit]

Main article: Santa Claus

In North America, the various traditions of European settlers amalgamated, by the 1840s resulting in the Santa Claus figure. The name Santa Claus is taken from Dutch Sinterklaas, but the figure also has incorporated aspects of Father Christmas and Joulupukki. French speakers in Canada use Le Père Noël ("Father Christmas").

Latin America[edit]

Father Christmas in Latin America is known as Papá Noel. There are variations from country to country, but the North American Santa Claus figure has been of considerable influence.


People around Asia, particularly countries that have adopted Western cultures, also celebrate Christmas and the gift-giver traditions passed down to them from the West. Some countries that observe and celebrate Christmas (especially as a public holiday) include Hong Kong, Philippines, East Timor, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and the Christian communities within Central Asia and the Middle East.

Central Asia and Caucasus[edit]

  • Afghanistan: Baba Chaghaloo
  • Azerbaijan: Şaxta Baba ("Grandfather Frost"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.
  • Kazakhstan: Колотун Бабай ("Father Frost"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.
  • Mongolia: Өвлийн өвгөн Ovliin ovgon ("Grandfather Winter"), who is associated with New Year.
  • Tatarstan: Qış Babay/Кыш Бабай ("Winter Grandfather"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.
  • Turkey: Noel Baba ("Father Noel"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.
  • Turkmenistan: Aýaz baba ("Grandfather Frost"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.
  • Uzbekistan: Qor bobo ("Grandfather Snow"), or Ayoz Bobo ("Grandfather Frost"), who is associated with New Year when presents are given.

East Asia[edit]

  • China – "Shengdan laoren" (Traditional Chinese: 聖誕老人, Simplified Chinese: 圣诞老人, Cantonese: "sing daan lo jan", pinyin: shèngdànlǎorén literally "The Old Man of Christmas")
  • Hong Kong: 聖誕老人 (jyutping: sing3 daan3 lou5 jan4 lit. Christmas old man) Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas
  • Indonesia: Santa Claus or Sinterklas
  • Japan: サンタさん、サンタクロース santa-san (lit. Mr. Santa), サンタクロース santa kurōsu
  • Japan – (Romaji: "Santakurōsu", loan of "Santa Claus")
  • Korea: 산타 클로스 ("santa kullosu"), 산타 할아버지 ("santa grandfather")
  • Mongolia: Өвлийн өвгөн ("Uvliin uvgun" Winter's Grandfather)
  • Philippines: Santa Claus; traditionally it was the Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) [see Spain, above]
  • Taiwan: 聖誕老人 or 聖誕老公公 (both literally 'The Old Man of Christmas')
  • Thailand: ซานตาคลอส (Santa Claus)
  • Vietnam: Ông già Noel ("The Christmas old man")

South Asia[edit]

  • India: Jingal Bell, Santa Claus, Telugu: Thatha ("Christmas old man") Marathi: Natal Bua (Christmas elder man); ಸಾ೦ಟಾ ಕ್ಲಾಸ್ (in southern India)
  • Sri Lanka – "Naththal Seeya" (Sinhala language, literally "Christmas Grandfather")

Africa and the Middle East[edit]

Christians in Africa and Middle East who celebrate Christmas generally ascribe to the gift-giver traditions passed down to them by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries . Descendants of colonizers still residing in these regions likewise continue the practices of their ancestors.[4]

  • Egypt: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)
  • Iran: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)
  • Israel: סנטה קלאוס (Santa Claus in Hebrew letters)
  • Lebanon: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)
  • South Africa: Sinterklaas; Father Christmas; Santa Claus; Kersvader
  • Syria: Papa Noël (Arabic: بابا نويل baba noel)


  • Australia: Best known as Santa Claus. Less commonly referred to as Father Christmas and Saint Nick.[5]
  • New Zealand: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, also referred to as Hanakoko, which is Maori for Santa Claus.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Encyclopedia Americana (1920) (page 307) Available online: [1].
  2. ^ Collier's Encyclopedia (1986) (Page 414)
  3. ^ "Santa Claus: The real man behind the myth". MSNBC. December 22, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27. 
  4. ^ "Dutch Sinterklaas on Horseback in Downtown Sofia - - Sofia News Agency". 2005-12-03. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  5. ^ Tim Harcourt, Chief Economist, Australian Trade Commission. "Why exporters believe in Santa Claus". Archived from the original on 2009-01-01. Father Christmas, Saint Nick or, as he is better known, Santa Claus