It’s thanks to centuries of Byzantine, Greek, and Scandinavian myths and folklore that this Christmas, some guy will put on a red velvet suit and fake beard to sit on a throne in Walmart, taking kids’ toy orders. But Santa wasn’t always the generous man in Walmart, nor is he everywhere today. That man is just one of the many evolutionary paths taken by tales of deities, sprites, animals, and St. Nicholas. In other countries, the patron saint of giving inherited different traits, leaving Santa with quite a few doppelgangers around the world, including goats, monks, and wise men who travel on camelback. Below the jump, we take you on a tour of Santa’s many representations around the globe.
Japan’s holiday gift-giver is a fat Buddhist monk with eyes in the back of his head. Some say he travels with a red-nosed reindeer and some say he works alone, but he doesn’t arrive on Christmas in either hybrid Christian-Buddhist tale. Christmas in Japan is spent with family doing charity work. But on New Year’s Eve, the real action begins: the house is cleaned and decorated, then family members throw beans for good luck and await their gifts from the benevolent monk.
Sinterklaas, The Netherlands
Dutch Santa Claus is elderly, looks more like a pope than a jolly fat man, and wears stately robes. He hangs out with a guy named Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) and takes a steamboat over to Holland from Spain in mid-November. (Currently, it should be noted, he resides in Spain, but before his current gig, Sinterklaas worked as a bishop over in Turkey.) He then has three weeks, rather than one night, to distribute gifts to good children, flying over roofs by white horse and dropping them down chimneys. Meanwhile, he and his cronies — six to eight, er, black men who give David Sedaris’ story about Sinterklaas its name — snatch up the bad children, beat them with switches, stuff them into body bags, and take them back to Spain.
La Befana, Italy
Depending on where in Italy you live, you’ll either get your presents on the Epiphany or on Christmas, but they’ll likely be brought to you by La Befana, the friendly holiday witch who leaves candies, figs, and goodies in good kids’ socks and coal — or dark candy — in bad kids’. If Santa has a cookie addiction, La Befana is something of a wino, so parents leave out a glass of wine for the witch to enjoy after traveling across the sky on her broomstick.
Originally it was a Christmas goat, the julbock, who delivered presents and holiday cheer to Swedes, but over the past century or so, they’ve phased out the goat and phased in the Jultomte, a mythical figure who’s usually small, old, bearded, and capped, much like a garden gnome or a brownie (a similar creature that does housework for you).
Ded Moroz, Russia
Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, dresses in a fairly Santa fashion, carrying with him an added magical staff and never going anywhere without his granddaughter Sengurochka, Snow Girl. Together, the two plan New Year’s Eve parties for kids, where they hand out gifts without the secrecy attributed to some St. Nicholas figures. Depending on where you’re from, Ded Moroz either lives in Veliky Ustug or Belavezhskaya Pushcha, arriving from either of them by troika of white horses.
The Three Kings, Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men, are the exciting gift givers of the holiday season. On Three Kings Day, also known as Epiphany or January 6th, children fill up boxes with grass for the three kings’ camels to eat. The camels feast, and the three kings thank the generous children by replacing the grass with gifts and sweets.
El Niño Dios, Mexico
In Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking countries, Santa brings children gifts, but so does El Niño Dios (Baby Jesus), since, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating. In some regions, Santa may bring the bulk of the gifts, while Baby Jesus just brings a handful of smaller ones; in others, the opposite is true.