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Santa and the Seven Continents

By Jenna Reedy

oming from my own North-American background, I was most concerned around the holidays because our house didn’t have a chimney. “But where will Santa come in?” I pondered and questioned my mother. Numerous times. For my childhood revealed to me a very robust, red-cheeked, animated man named Santa Claus, otherwise known as Saint Nick, who came to eat cookies and bear gifts, perhaps even toss his reindeer a carrot or two. This was the character I had grown up with, waiting for the sound of a jolly “Ho Ho” or glimpse of a fur-lined cap. For me, Santa Claus was certainly a one-of-a-kind figure, however, his origin is most likely a combination of histories beginning as early as the 4th century.

Saint Nicholas of Myra, a former bishop in what is now a region of Turkey, was famous for his generosity, particularly his practice of giving gifts to the poor. Meanwhile, more than thirteen hundred years later, the Dutch would come to own New Amsterdam, the city that eventually became known as New York. The Dutch believed in Sinterklass, a mythical character based on Saint Nicholas. It is popular belief that the legend of Sinterklass became Americanized over time into the modern day “Santa Claus.” So it would seem that the North American version is a hybrid of the two figures. But what about the rest of the world? What other cultures reveal about this character, or comparable ones, is an entirely different tale.

As previously mentioned, the equivalent of Santa Claus in the Netherlands is St. Nicholas or “Sinterklass” in Dutch. Sinterklass apparently arrives per steam boat from Spain every year, dressed in the vestments of a bishop, and brings his little helpers with him. These helpers, similar to elves, are sometimes called “Black Pete” or “Black Peter.” Their faces are black, although the reason remains somewhat of a mystery as a variety of theories arose during my research. A close Dutch friend confided to me it was because they were shooting up and down the chimneys all night, so their faces were black with soot. Some say they are dark because of the Moors influence in Spain, or even that “Black Pete” was originally from Morocco. And one colleague, who observed this modern-day phenomenon of face painting in his travels to Holland, speculated that perhaps the helpers were trying to camouflage themselves under the night sky. Regardless, Sinterklass has plenty of assistance and is believed to ride the rooftops on a white horse (for whom children put a carrot or hay in their shoes, with the hopes of receiving a treat in return). St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 5th each year.

“Gaghant Baba, you come from the mountains, open your doors wide so he may come into your house. White beard and White hair, he is dressed all in red with toys to all good children.”

This passage identifies the name given to Santa Claus in Armenia as “Gaghant Baba” or “New Year’s Papa.” An Armenian immigrant shared this song with me, which he sang as a child, recalling fondly how beautiful it sounds in his native tongue. Interestingly enough, it also showcases the similarities between this European character and the westernized Santa, with regard to dress and appearance.

In Italy, there are basically two figures reminiscent of Santa Claus. Father Christmas or “Babbo Natale” visits children with gifts, but so does another character who is often considered to be the female version of Santa Claus -- a woman by the name of “La Befana.” Similar to Babbo Natale she distributes gifts to the children, but not until the Epiphany. Legend has it that she was asked for either food and shelter or directions to Bethlehem by the Three Wise Men, who also invited her to join them, but she refused. When she finally reconsidered, it was too late and she has been searching for the Christ child ever since. On January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, or day of the Three Kings, she is said to fly on her broom and deliver gifts to the children of Italy.

“Sankt Nikolaus” as he is known in Germany comes to children on the eve of December 6. Despite a variety of descriptions, one personal account that was shared with me portrayed him in a long brown robe with a hood, carrying a sack over his shoulder. Tradition details his big book of deeds, listing each child’s good and bad behavior. If you were good, you would receive some candy and possibly a toy, but for the bad children Sankt Nikolaus carried a bundle of switches. Similar to Holland’s tradition, children put their shoes out by the door, for after they went to bed Nikolaus would put a piece of candy in it.

In Russia, Santa Claus is literally translated to “Grand-Father Frost.” According to legend, Grand-Father Frost lives deep in the woods and comes to town via sleigh. His granddaughter, Snegurochka, helps to take care of him and assists with packing the gifts for the children. She is often portrayed in an ice blue gown while Grand-Father Frost is bedecked in red robes. Then, on New Year’s Eve, while the little ones are fast asleep, Grand-Father Frost places gifts under the Christmas trees. I was also delighted to discover from my Russian friend that a rough translation of the granddaughter’s name is “Snow White.”

Continuing my journey to the southern portion of Asia, my focus shifts to India. This is a country that conjures up images of heat and dust, exotic flavors and colors, at least to me. But in reality, India ranks at the top of the world’s list for heavy snowfall, as it is home to the Himalayas. No direct equivalent of Santa Claus exists in this region as it is mostly comprised of Hindus and Muslims, but a unique gift-giving character is revealed during the winter festival of Lohri, which is celebrated in January. “Dulha Bhatti,” who is reminiscent of Robin Hood, since he robs from the rich to give to the poor, is remembered most notably for his gift of marrying off one of the local village girls and helping to end her misery. Lohri is celebrated mostly in Punjab, also known as the breadbasket of India.

Of course, not all characters that surface near Christmas and winter holidays are round and jolly. I’m told by my colleague from Ghana that, “Christmas is a scary time.” He tells me that the more traditional figure of Santa Claus, or as they say, “Father Christmas” is present in Ghana because of the British influence. He arrives complete with red suit and white beard, and gives out of cookies at the local mall. However, that isn’t the frightening part. What my friend shutters at, even as we speak in a nice cozy setting, is the recollection of the “Emase” from true Ghanaian culture. During the week of Christmas, various figures don the special garb of the Emase, in which they appear in brightly colored masks and clothes. They walk on stilts and bang on drums. Their masks have ghoulish expressions and they wear hideous wigs with a decadence reminiscent of Carnival. Their goal is to scare children off the streets to run home and be with their families. Once home, children steal peeks through their gates at the Emase, who stand outside the houses until the parents come out and shoo them (and their incessant drum pounding) away. Talk about getting the family together for the holidays! This is the gift of the Emase, which is particularly interesting to discover, because my Ghanaian co-worker tells me that much of his culture has yet to be shared with the rest of the world online.

Very similar to the North American figure, the Australian version of Santa Claus comes down the chimney in a red suit to bring presents and enjoy milk and cookies. He comes from the North Pole with heaps of reindeer along for the ride. My Aussie friend also confirms that the story of Santa has a evolved a bit more to include Santa having kangaroos instead of reindeer, drinking beer, not milk, and yes, also wearing shorts as “winter” in Australia is actually summer.

That warm weather continues throughout the Southern Hemisphere, bringing us to South America, where in Brazil and Peru, Santa is called “Papai Noel.” Similar to his counterpart in the North, he wears a red suit and brings presents. In Chile, however, our jolly friend is known as “Viejito Pascuero” or Old Man Christmas. He arrives with his reindeer despite the heat, but due to the fact that the chimneys tend to be smaller in this region (with its tropical climate), he crawls in through the windows to deliver his gifts. He wears a more traditional Santa’s garb, although in some areas he is recognized as a local rancher, complete with a llama in tow.

Lastly, we come to what some might call the edge of the world. Given that Antarctica is largely uninhabitable, let’s assume that the tradition of Santa Claus is alive and well amongst the penguins. Maybe he can finally take a breather and get some rest.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of cultures that celebrate Santa Claus, but rather a snapshot into the various continents which reveal intriguing customs and characters. Perhaps more importantly however, regardless of the region, it is the concept of giving that resonates blissfully across all borders.

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