Santa Claus is a figure that has incorporated influences from a wide range of sources. However, his historical basis would be Saint Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian bishop who lived in one of the numerous ancient Greek cities that could be found in Asia Minor. We know next to nothing about the historical individual. However, we have numerous legends about the man.
For example, he is said to have dropped a sack of gold coins through the window of a house each night for three nights so that the impoverished family would be able to pay dowries for its three daughters, thus sparing them from the awful fate from being forced to become prostitutes. Likewise, there are claims that he participated in the First Council of Nicaea, which was supposed to settle the exact nature of God the Son as well as his exact relationship with God the Father. Other legends are much more wonderful, which is perhaps unsurprising when Saint Nicholas was sometimes called Nicholas the Wonderworker.
In any case, Saint Nicholas became very popular, so much so that he was considered the patron saint of everyone from children, merchants, and sailors to places such as Russia, Greece, and Amsterdam. Over time, he inspired figures such as the Dutch Sinterklaas, which would combine with the English Father Christmas to result in the American Santa Claus. Nowadays, many of these figures have become entwined with one another to such an extent that they are one and the same for most practical purposes.
Interesting to note that different countries from around the world have their own take on Santa Claus.
United States — Santa Claus
Santa Claus, legendary figure who is the traditional patron of Christmas in the United States, bringing gifts to children.
The Netherlands — Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, is dear to the hearts of Dutch children. He can be recognized by his eye-catching red cape with red miter and his long white beard. The saintly man arrives each year in mid-November on a steam boat filled with gifts and together with his helpers, all referred to as ‘Piet’ (Peter).
United Kingdom — Father Christmas
Father Christmas, as he is known in the UK, was inspired to spread the magic of Christmas by St. Nikolas of Myra.
Russia and Ukraine — Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (Father Frost and Snow Maiden)
Ded Moroz or Father Frost, the Slavic version of Santa Claus, long ago became the symbol of Russian winter, New Year’s and presents. He is usually accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka riding with an evergreen tree in a traditional Russian troika, a sleigh drawn by three horses abreast.
Snegurochka is a unique attribute of the image of Ded Moroz – none of his foreign colleagues have such a cute companion.
France — Père Noël or Papa Noël
Père Noël, “Father Christmas”, sometimes called Papa Noël (“Daddy Christmas”), is a legendary gift-bringer at Christmas in France and other French-speaking areas.
Sweden — Tomte or Jultomten
A nisse, tomte, tomtenisse, or tonttu is a mythological creature from Nordic folklore today typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It is generally described as being no taller than 90 cm, having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in red or some other bright colour.
Norway — Julenissen
A creation from Scandinavian folklore, a Julenisse (tomte in Sweden) is a short creature with a long white beard and a red hat. Julenisse means the gift-bearing nisse at Christmas time.
Austria, Switzerland, and Germany — Christkind or Christkindl
The Christkind (sometimes known affectionately as Christkindl) is a traditional giver of gifts at Christmas time, mainly in European countries including Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Slovakia and Switzerland. The word Christkind translates to ‘Christ Child’. The Christkind is depicted as an angelic figure with blond hair and wings.
Finland — Joulupukki or Yule goat
The Yule goat is a Scandinavian and Northern European Yule and Christmas symbol and tradition. Its origin may be Germanic pagan and has existed in many variants during Scandinavian history. Modern representations of the Yule goat are typically made of straw.
Italy — La Befana
In the Italian folklore, Befana is a witch looking old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Sinterklaas or Santa Claus. The character may have originated in central Italy, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy.