Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday have come and gone and that means, at least for most Gentiles of the world, Christmas is right around the corner. While we all love the food and the family the presents aren’t a bad addition. The prospect of Santa Claus, at least in America, is exciting and magical, bringing us gifts that we have coveted for months. However, Santa is not always portrayed as a jolly old elf, and while chubby American children wait for their new gaming systems, lead painted dolls, or whatever cheap plastic trinket they want, children in countries like France and Holland wait, sometimes in terror, to be kidnapped or whipped. Ever the globe-trotter, we are taking this week to explore several Santas from around the world.
If you’re looking for the original, look no further. Saint Nicholas is renowned as the father of father Christmas. With humble beginnings as a Greek Orthodox bishop in the fourth century, Saint Nicholas then, is very different from Saint Nicholas now. Although it is thought he was very generous, his Orthodox piety banned things like attractive facial hair, a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly, and a souped up reindeer sleigh.
Although Santa Claus is celebrated widely throughout Christian culture, the Santa I am talking about in this section is the coca-cola drinking, elf-employing, North Pole living Santa. The modern American Santa Claus became popular in 1823 when a poem titled “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, better known as, “The Night Before Christmas” was published by Clement Clarke Moore. Soon the image of Santa began to evolve until, by mid-twentieth century, Santa became immortal–a benevolent elf who gives more presents than coals and flies, ever sustainably, by the power of eight reindeer.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch portrayal of Saint Nicholas. With a widely accepted presence in Holland, Belgium and areas of Africa and Southeast Asia, your travels abroad may bring you to Sinterklaas country. Sinterklaas is often known to put oranges and other sweets in the shoes of good children. However, naughty children suffer a worse fate. Zwarte pieten, or Black Peter, is Sinterklaas’s helper. A young black man, often portrayed as a white man in black face, Black Peter is a controversial character to say the least. It is his job to punish children who have misbehaved and, if necessary, put them in a bag and send them to Spain (???). I know, I was shocked too. I can only assume he hangs out with Pere Noel, the French Santa, who’s helper has the grueling task of whipping naughty children.
The Yule Goat
As an American I am required to scoff at the idea of a Yule Goat. After all, goats, while tenacious and (with a touch of imagination) generous, are often known to faint under stress and lack opposable thumbs. The original Scandinavian Yule Goat was thought to scare children into giving him presents. However, once scaring children and stealing from them became a faux pas, the Yule Goat reformed his thieving ways and now distributes presents throughout northern Europe.
Martin Luther created the figure of Christkind (Christ child) in hopes that the baby gift giver would eclipse the orgiastic Santa. Still thought to be the giver of gifts in many regions of Austria and Germany, the baby Jesus flies from house to house on cherub wings bringing presents to good children. No mention of what naughty children get, but if Luther made it up it’s probably pretty intense.
Ded Moroz and Snow Maiden
Don’t worry, not all Santa figures beat and kidnap children. Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Claus, tramps around the former Soviet Union with his hot mistress, The Snow Maiden. Where is Mrs. Claus, you might ask? Probably slaving away up north while her ungrateful husband shacks up in his love nest with his 20-something year old helper. No doubt she helps keep him warm on those long and chilly sleigh rides.