Santa Claus is easily one of the most recognizable legends in the world.
But did you know that there are many alternative versions of Santa Claus in circulation in Europe, based on folklore and tradition?
We’re going to look at the strange and sometimes dark history of Europe’s many different Santas in this article.
1. THE NETHERLANDS: SINTERKLAAS AND PETER
In the Netherlands, the Christmas tradition has been under closer scrutiny lately.
The Dutch version of Santa Claus is Sinterklaas (or Sint-Nikolaas).
He is a representation of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, and is often called De Sint ("The Saint"), De Goede Sint ("The Good Saint") and De Goedheiligman ("The Good Holy Man").
But their version of Santa Claus is not the reason this Dutch December tradition has come under criticism lately.
Instead, the issue has to do with "Zwarte Piet" ("Black Peter"), the Saint Moor’s helper, who is often dressed in a colorful Moorish robe and feathered cap and carries a sack full of candy for the children.
Traditionally, Peter also carries a chimney sweep broom, which he uses to spank naughty children. Some traditional songs are also about Peter stuffing naughty children into his sack and taking them back to Spain.
To celebrate the legend of Saint Nicholas, many Dutch people still dress up and wear Peter’s costume at Christmas time. The traditional black face is controversially becoming more and more a thing of the past as the tradition gives way to more socially acceptable standards.
"Black" Peter is often scrutinized for racism. Nonetheless, the legend and celebration are still popular today and are being readapted to fit the new social norm.
The name day of St. Nicholas falls on the 6th day of the month. December, and is celebrated by going out on the evening of 5. December (Saint Nicholas evening) gifts distributed or young children on the morning of the 6. December surprised with a mountain of gifts.
The legend of Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, although the exact day on which this occurs may vary depending on the region.
2. GERMANY: SANTA CLAUS, CHRISTKIND, NIKOLAUS AND KRAMPUS
Germany has a variety of interesting Christmas personalities.
The first is Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is quite similar to Sinterklaas and is also based on the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas.
However, Santa Claus can sometimes be seen carrying a rod, which he gives to naughty children instead of presents.
He is also accompanied by a servant or helper known as Knecht Ruprecht.
The story of how Ruprecht became Santa’s helper varies in regions of Germany.
According to some stories, he first worked as a farmhand; according to others, he was a foundling raised by Saint Nicholas from infancy.
Ruprecht is usually depicted wearing a black or brown robe with a pointed hood. He carries a long staff and a sack full of ashes.
He is sometimes accompanied by a few helpers, usually depicted as old women with blackened faces.
According to German folklore, Ruprecht asks children to recite a prayer. Those who can, get apples, gingerbread and nuts as a reward.
Those who can’t, on the other hand, get a beating with Ruprecht’s sack full of ashes.
Some variations of the story say that good children get candy from Saint Nicholas, while naughty children get lumps of coal, sticks and stones from Knecht Ruprecht.
Another popular German Christmas personage is the Christkind/Christkindl.
Although Britons often confuse the Christkindl with the baby Jesus, the Christkind is actually depicted as an angelic woman with blonde hair and wings (similar to the St. Lucia in Sweden).
Like Santa Claus in the United States, the Christ Child brings children their gifts on 24. December and leaving them under the Christmas tree.
Parents usually tell their children to hide and wait for the sound of the bell, which indicates that it has come and left their presents.
The legend of the Christ Child was created during the Protestant Reformation of the 16. and 17. The first Santa Claus was promulgated by Martin Luther in the mid-nineteenth century and was intended as a reference to the reincarnation of Jesus.
And to face the beautiful innocence of the Christ Child, the Germans have Krampus, the Christmas demon.
Krampus is depicted as a horned figure that is half man and half goat.
He wears chains, is covered in black or brown hair/fur, has a long, pointed tongue (usually shown hanging out of his mouth) and pointed fangs.
During the Christmas season, Krampus punished naughty children, while Saint Nicholas rewarded the obedient ones.
The legend of Krampus is believed to have pre-Christian roots.
Today, it is still a common part of Christmas tradition in parts of Germany, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia.
In these regions, most alpine towns celebrate the annual Krampuslauf parade, where young men dress up as Krampus.
3. THE SLAVIC COUNTRIES: DED MOROZ
Ded Moroz, which can literally be translated as "Father Frost," is a Slavic Christmas legend similar to that of Santa Claus.
Unlike Santa Claus or other Santa Claus-like legends we have listed so far, however, Ded Moroz brings gifts on New Year’s Eve.
Similar to Santa Claus, he is generally depicted as a jolly old man with a long white beard, dressed in a long blue and white robe and walenki, a type of felt boots worn in Russia and other neighboring countries during winter.
Traditionally, Ded Moroz is accompanied by Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper, who is also dressed in similar robes.
The origins of Ded Moroz have been linked to pre-Christian times.
In some texts he is considered the son of Veles and Mara, two pagan deities.
Ded Moroz became very popular in Slavic countries after the Russian Revolution, when Christmas and other Christian holidays were banned in many of those regions.
Today, the legend of Ded Moroz is still popular in many places, especially in modern Russia.
Since 1998, Veliki Ustyug in Vologda Oblast, Russia, has been officially designated as the hometown of Ded Moroz.
4. SWEDEN: JULTOMTEN
The last version of Santa Claus that we look at in this article comes from Sweden.
As in many parts of the world, Swedes celebrate Christmas on 24. December Christmas.
The creature responsible for bringing gifts – to ring in the holidays – is known as Jultomten (sometimes simply called Tomten).
Although today’s jultomten is also used synonymously to refer to Santa Claus, it also refers to a type of cross between Santa Claus and a nissen.
Nissen are mythological creatures that appear throughout Nordic folklore.
They are usually depicted as small, bearded creatures (no taller than 30cm), often wearing large, cylindrical hats.
Nits are typically associated with the winter solstice and Christmas season and, according to ancient folklore, watch over farms or houses while farmers and their families sleep.
Although they are generally depicted as helpful creatures, they can also be angry and punish human farmers by killing their livestock or wreaking havoc on their farms.
Today, despite their different cultural origins, the Jultomten is usually depicted as Santa Claus.