Santa Clause is the main man of the holiday season. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas your going to get a lot of old Saint Nick. Commercials, songs, movies, you name it, as long as it has something to do with the winter holidays, Santa is going to show up. Cities even throw the guy a parade in his honour every year.
North Americans know Santa Clause as a big and jolly bearded man who lives in the farthest reaches of the north, commands an army of elf toy makers, and takes it upon himself to give toys to all of the "nice" children around the world. Santa is kind of a global missionary (for toys) but everyone doesn't share the same image of Santa as we do.
Some strange variations of Santa exist in other nations. Some are carbon copies of North America's version, others not so much. Follow me on a global tour of Santa and find out the many faces of Kris Kringle.
Strangely enough, the two figures who are thought to have inspired the Santa tradition come from religious and pagan stories. On the divine end of things, you have St. Nicholas of Myra, a canonized miracle worker who lived around 300 ACE. St. Nicholas was known for gift giving and had a special relationship with children, along with being the patron saint of merchants, bakers, and wolves, for some reason. During the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas got super popular in Europe, and its widely believed it was his figure and legend which inspired the modern Santa Clause. It would explain how Santa got the name Old St. Nick.
On the other, less religious and more pagan end of the spectrum, you have Odin the All-Father as a pre-Santa figure. You know Odin, Thor's dad (played by Anthony Hopkins in the Marvel movies), eye patch, king of Asgard and all that. Even if you're unfamiliar, just know that Odin was the head of the Norse set of gods, and he played a very similar role in the pre-Christian holiday of Yule. White bearded Odin would ride his 8-footed horse at night and bring gifts to his worshipers. See some similarities here people?
Fathers of Christmas
Unfortunatly, all of Odin's badassery and St. Nicholas' miracle working was lost for a lame red suit and elves to create Father Christmas, Europe's most widespread Santa Clause. In fact, the North American Santa Clause and Father Christmas (as he is called in England) are almost the exact same character, as is the same with many European countries. Most just fuse their two words for 'father' and 'christmas' to name Santa Clause (e.g. Brazil's Papai Noel) and call it a day. Father Christmas is even in Asian countries, at least those with large amounts of Christians, in his familiar red robes.
Any country who celebrates a guy called Father Christmas follows the same basic tradition we're all used to, no matter the language or culture. One cool variation is France's Père Noel, who has a partner named Père Fouettard (The whipping Father) accompanying him on his gift giving adventure. The whipping father lives up to his name, as he gives coal and floggings to the naughty kids on Santa's list. Leave it to the French to get a little kinky on Christmas. And no, he isn't doing black face, he's just all mucked up from the coal...or so they say.
Witches and Wizards
But not all countries took the mystical and pagan elements out of the Santa character. Ayaz Ata and Ded Moroz (hailing from Turkic speaking countries and Russia, respectively), are both winter gods capable of magical feats. Nowadays the characters have morphed into a kind of 'reverse-Santa' who exclusively wears blue robes, has a single female helper, uses a magical staff, and presents gifts in person rather than under the cover of night. A magical frost sorcerer who gives you gifts but doesn't break into your house? I'm already liking this version more.
Witches are part of the holiday tradition in Italy, a cool accompaniment to Italy's Babbo Natale. La Befana, a classic broom stick riding witch, travels Italy on January 5th to give good kids candy or fruit, and bad kids onions and garlic. Like Santa, she even climbs through chimneys. Italy's favourite witch has connections to Christianity, at least in her origin story, but she's equally pagan, having a magic broom and super similar to the Roman goddess Strina.
Some countries actually associate gift giving with the religious aspects of Christmas. Remember that little dude who was supposedly born on Christmas and founded Christianity...Jesus something or other? Anyway, his baby-self is the one who brings gifts to kids. Known as El Nino Dios in Latin American countries, little baby JC sends out an angel (called the Christkindl in Germany) to go give presents to good kids, because he's pretty much a boss like that and can even tell angels what to do. At least there are some countries who still have a slightly religious spin on Santa.
To close this Santa-search down, here's my favourite version of an xmas gift bearer. Joulupukki (Yule Goat) is the Finnish version of Santa Clause, who has the creepiest of all Santa origin stories. Joulupukki is more goat than man (or could be a man turned into a man-goat), who originally pulled Odin's wagon, and then went on to terrorize children, demanding good behavior. As time passed, Joulupukki became much more kid-friendly, and now is just a Finnish Santa Clause. I'm personally more of a fan of goat's way of doing things. Its way more proactive to make kids be good out of fear than just giving them presents.