The Many Faces of Santa Claus

The following is an article from Uncle John's 24-Karat Gold Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Flickr user Steven Falconer)

You probably think of Santa as a jolly guy in a red suit who hangs out with elves and reindeer. But that’s only the American view. Saint Nick, it turns out, is a man of the world, and other countries have their own wildly varying versions.


In this former Soviet republic, Santa is known as Ayaz Ata (“Snow Father”) and he delivers presents on New Year’s Eve, not Christmas Eve. Schools host “Christmas Tree Parties” in the week leading up to December 31 to help prepare for Ayaz’s arrival. The celebration is part Christmas and part Halloween, as children dress in costumes. Ayaz doesn’t have reindeer and elves—he walks with a staff and is assisted by his adopted daughter, Aksha Kar. According to legend, Aksha was once made out of snow, but she began to melt in the spring after Ayaz and his wife adopted her. Then she underwent a magical Pinocchio-like transformation and now serves as his helper.


In Italy, Santa goes by Babbo Natale (“Father Christmas”), but he typically leaves the gift giving
to a witch named La Befana. Italian children place their shoes by the front door of their homes in the hope that she’ll stop by and place gifts in them on the night before Epiphany, a holiday that celebrates the 12th day of Christmas (January 5), the day the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. The legend says that as the Three Wise Men made their way to Bethlehem to greet the baby Jesus, they asked La Befana for directions and invited her to come along...but she declined because she was preoccupied with household chores. Later that night, she spotted a “great, white light” on the horizon, immediately regretted her decision to stay home, and flew off on her broomstick to join them. (She is a witch, after all.) But she got lost, so now she spends every Epiphany Eve searching for Baby Jesus, scattering gifts for kids along the way.


(Image credit: Flickr user Robert Sanzalone)

Fewer than 1% of Japan’s residents are Christian, so Christmas isn’t considered a major holiday there, but many people enjoy it as a secular annual tradition. Children receive presents under their pillows from a Santa dubbed Santakukoru, who has taken on the characteristics of Hotei-osho, a mythological Buddhist monk who, according to legend, was once known for carrying gifts around in a large red bag. And it’s become commonplace for couples (and families) to dine at Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Day. The tradition started in the 1980s when Americans living in Japan couldn’t find restaurants that served turkey dinners, so they got the next best thing: KFC. Result: Tables for Christmas meals at Japanese KFCs have to be booked months in advance.


Santa goes by Noel Baba (“Father Christmas”) in Turkey, and his story is similar to the Turkish tales about St. Nicholas, who was born in the town of Patara around A.D. 270. The story goes that Nicholas inherited a large fortune from his father and decided to give it away to the poor, especially needy children. One night, Nicholas encountered a nobleman and three daughters, who had all fallen on hard times. Because their father couldn’t provide dowries, the girls had no shot at marriage. One night Nicholas intervened and tossed a sack of gold coins through their window for the first daughter. He returned the following night and tossed in another sack for the second daughter. On the third night, the window was closed. Undaunted, Nicholas climbed onto the roof and dropped more gold down the chimney. The next morning, the daughters found the coins in the stockings they had hung to dry over the fireplace. (Sound familiar?) Now, every Christmas Eve, Noel Baba flies around Turkey delivering more presents via chimneys.


St. Nicholas is the Christmas icon here, and he isn’t nearly as forgiving or jolly as the American Santa. Instead of Rudolph, he travels with Krampus, a hairy, demon-like monster with horns and sharp teeth. During the holiday season, children are encouraged to behave themselves: If they do, they get presents. If they don’t, Krampus will beat them with his rusty chains. And what happens if the creature finds children still awake on Christmas Eve when Nicholas shows up to deliver gifts? He will toss them into a sack and cart them away. Every December 5, the Austrian town of Schladming hosts an annual “Krampus Karnaval,” which features volunteers who dress up as Krampus and march through the streets in a parade, threatening children along the route with tree branches and plastic chains.

The Netherlands

(Image credit: Looi)

The tales surrounding the Dutch version of Santa may be the strangest of all. Here he goes by Sinterklaas, and he’s taller, thinner, and more regal than the American version. He delivers presents on December 5 as part of a holiday called Sinterklaasavond (“Santa Claus Evening”) or Pakjesavond (“Presents Evening”). But before that, on a Saturday in November, Sinkterklaas’s “arrival pageant” is staged and televised across the country. Mounted atop a white horse, an actor dressed as Sinterklaas rides through a randomly selected Dutch city before he makes his deliveries. (Sinterklaas lives not at the North Pole, but in the distant, exotic land of... Madrid.) Accompanying him on his journey (via steamboat, not sleigh) is a group of African servants called the Zwarte Pieten, or “Black Peters.”
During the televised event, white Dutch actors wear black makeup and bright red lipstick to portray the Black Peters. They march alongside Sinterklaas, performing pratfalls while handing out candy to good children. Bad children are threatened with brooms, and according to Dutch legend, really bad kids are carted in sacks back to Spain to make the toys that Sinterklaas delivers to the good children. To keep up with the “politically correct” times, many Dutch parents now tell their children that the Pieten aren’t really black—they’re just covered in soot from sliding up and down so many chimneys. In 2006 the Dutch Program Foundation went even further and attempted to replace Sinterklaas’s helpers with rainbow-colored Pieten. It proved so unpopular that they reverted back to the traditional, all-black Pieten for the 2007 celebration.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's 24-Karat Gold Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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