Before I get into this article I would just like to say my inspiration for this idea came from my many holiday trips to Epcot in Disney World over the years. I always loved how Epcot would take the time to share different cultural Christmas experiences from each country you visit within the park! I also loved how they would showcase what Santa looked like in different countries (I even did a project on it once). So I decided to compile a list of some countries that have vastly different Santa or Christmas cultural traditions and I also showcase how in different ways the tale of Christmas still intertwines between countries. But I would like to disclose that I did research for all of these cultural traditions but obviously not all the information may be accurate and I apologize if something is incorrect, but I do try to be as mindful to each culture as I can be!
The United States: Santa Claus
Santa Claus is a western Christian figure who delivers gifts under the tree to the homes of good children every year on the night of December 24th (Christmas Eve) into the early morning of December 25th (Christmas Day). Children who are good all year are met with toys on Christmas morning as opposed to those who are bad are met with coal as a reminder to be better behaved for next year. Clad in a red suit and black boots, toys made by his working elves in the North Pole, he rides a sleigh led by eight reindeer to each home, usually using chimneys to access them.
The United Kingdom: Father Christmas
Father Christmas actually came to be in the United Kingdom due to the myth coming over from America in the 1850s. Prior to the American influence, Father Christmas was mainly a story of a man that brought the spirit of merriment, drinking, and feasting among adults during the holiday season. But once the influence reached and the inspiration grew, his legend became more geared towards children and as a gift-giver on the Eve of Christmas. Like Santa Claus, Father Christmas can sometimes be found wearing a red robe but is usually portrayed wearing green unlike his American counterpart.
Germany: Kris Kringle
In Germany, Christmas is celebrated from December 25th to January 6th. This is due to the 12 days of Christmas and the ‘arrival’ of the Three Wise Men or The Three Kings on January 6th. The tradition of an advent calendar was actually started in German. Now Kris Kringle is the gift giver on Christmas Eve, not to be confused with his St. Nikolaus counterpart who is celebrated on December 6th.
France: Pere Noel
Pere Noel or Father Christmas, is much like his United States counterpart. He brings toys to children on Christmas even, wears red, and has a workshop in the North Pole. What’s different from the American culture is that Pere Noel is often times accompanied by his donkey companion Gui which means mistletoe in French. It is said that on Christmas Eve, children will leave their shoes placed by the fireplace filled with carrots for Gui. Making sure the children were good that year, Pere Noel will then replace the carrots with presents for children to wake up to on Christmas morning.
Russia: Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz & Snegurochka
Originally part of Slavic mythology, Ded Moroz was known as the wizard of winter and once the concept was taken in by Russian Christianity, became so much more. The Santa Claus-like figure is known to bring New Years gifts to children every year on January 1st. Much like the United States’ Santa Claus, he is seen wearing an iconic red (or sometimes blue) robe and tall boots adorned with ornaments and stars. What makes him stand out from the rest, is he is said to normally be seen riding his sleigh led by three horses with his granddaughter known as Snegurochka! But make sure you aren’t lazy! Ded Moroz only likes those who work hard and life and gets angry towards those who lay around all day.
Italy: Babbo Natale & La Befana
Babbo Natale is the more refined version of Santa Claus when it comes to Italian culture. He is known to still wear red and have a white beard, but is portrayed as skinnier than the jolly United States version. He is known to visit on Christmas Eve but the ordeal is not has highly anticipated as January 6th is for most Italian families. You see, on January 6th, which is also known as The Epiphany, La Befana pays a visit to all the good boys and girls and delivers gifts. La Befana is said to visit home on the Eve of The Epiphany Feast through their chimneys much like Santa Claus. The main differences are she is described as an old woman who rides a broom to each house and is sometimes referred to as the Christmas Witch.It is also said she uses this broom to sweep each house she visits as a way to sweep away all the troubles of the past year to leave room to start the new.
Brazil: Papai Noel
Papai Noel is slightly different from his Northern Hemisphere counterparts. Since Brazil is in the start of their summer months when Christmas hits, Papai Noel is said to arrive in silks on Christmas Eve to accommodate to the heat of the season. It is also said that he lives in Greenland and makes the journey each year to visit good children who leave their stockings out for him to replace with presents. Since many Brazilian Christians often go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, their Christmas Days usually start a little later than most and are often followed by trips to the beach or spent outside enjoying the warm weather.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the song Mele Kalikimaka which means Merry Christmas in Hawaiian and I’m also sure many of you are questioning why I’m even singling out Hawaii since it’s part of the United States. Well let me answer that question for you. You see the idea of Santa Claus wasn’t introduced to Hawaii until after the 1820s when missionaries arrived to the chain of islands. But unlike the rest of the United States, Hawaiians take a very different spin on the classic Santa tale. Instead of arriving on a sleigh, Kanakaloka or Santa Claus arrives on a canoe wearing so fashionable red shorts and matching Hawaiian shirt!
In Norway, gifts are normally exchanged and opened on Christmas Eve. Julenissen or Santa Claus will then sometimes deliver presents, but the main gift givers are known as Nisse or small gnomes. Many of Norway’s Christmas decorations include these small gnomes and children will sometimes dress as them to sing carols.
Spain & Mexico: The Three Kings
Dia de los Reyes or Day of The Three Kings is celebrated every year on January 6th of The Epiphany. Although Spain and Mexico still celebrates Christmas, this day is considered a little more exciting and festive. In the Christmas story, The Three Kings or Three Wise Men come and leave gifts for the baby Jesus. So on the Eve of January 5th, children will leave their shoes out in hopes that the three kings will come and leave gifts for them as well. Leading up to Day of The Three Kings, people gather to watch parades and festivals all honoring the three who brought gifts to baby Jesus all those years ago. They also feast on Kings Cake which is similar to fruitcake (clearly I can’t get off the fruitcake topic).
China: Dun Che Lao Ren or Christmas Old Man
China did not necessarily become a very popular holiday within China until the past couple of decades. Now that the holiday is looks more like just a festive time of year instead of a strictly religious affair, it spirit of the season has grown throughout the country. Although households will decorate with Christmas Trees and decorations, Dun Che Lao Ren (their comparison of Santa Claus) does not bring gifts to children on Christmas. Instead he is mainly there to be met in malls and hold photoshoots with kids. Most presents are exchanged on Chinese New Year instead.
Lastly we have Japan’s Hoteiosho. Since Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan and is not celebrated by many, their holiday festivities are very different from others around the world. Instead of Santa, they have Hoteiosho, a buddhist monk would has a sack of presents. It is also said that he has eyes in the back of his head which is his way of knowing if children have been naughty or nice that year. Since the tradition is heavily Americanized in many ways to the Japanese culture, Christmas meals usually include trips to KFC or only American chains (but usually revolve around the idea of fried chicken).