The act of children receiving gifts during the month of December is essentially the same all around the world. The character that brings the gifts however is not. In Canada we have Santa Claus, but many countries around the world have quite the unique view on the jolly December gift giver.
The Christmas legend on Tomte can be found in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Finland and Sweden as well as some areas of Denmark. The Tomte legend was popular back before the days of technology and it still is in rural areas. The Tomte were described as gnomish creatures that where kind and kept watch over the family farm. However, these little guys had short tempers, which meant that if they got angry at the farm owners they would beat them up or play nasty tricks on them.
Essentially, a lot of farm accidents were blamed on these little fellows regardless of if it was the holiday season. Eventually, Christianity took hold in Scandinavia, but the Tomte didn't leave. Instead they melded with the religion and integrated themselves with the celebration of Christmas. Their features became more human and incidentally they were described to look very much like a tiny Santa Claus.
Now the modern Tomte are gift-givers, though they are called either Jultomte, Julnisse, or Joulupukki now depending on the country. The Tomte are described as living in the forest outside of the children's house and come Christmas time, they emerge with sleighs full of gift pulled by a singular goat.
Belsnickel And Christkindl
Belsnickel is a legendary figure for parts of Germany, Austria, Argentina, and the United States among the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, he is not a Santa Claus at all. In fact, Belsnickel is the anti- Claus. Belsnickel is, essentially, the enforcer in Santa's crew. He is described as a mountain man all cloaked in furs who occasionally will wear a mask with a long tongue. While Belsnickel is generally a scare tactic to make sure children are good, in some places he is thought to bring presents to good kids. The bad kids however get coal to remind them to be better.
So do these German communities have a Santa Claus? Yes, of course! Their Santa is named Christkindl, which translates rather literally to ‘Christ Child’. This figure was popularized in the 1500s by Martin Luther who wanted to better associate Christmas with Christ, as it primarily celebrated the exploits of St Nicholas. The Christkindl is supposed to be literally the baby Jesus with blonde hair, rosy cheeks and the wings of an angel. Unlike the other Clauses of the world, Christkindl doesn't deliver presents – while in some places, the Belsnickel does and in others St Nicholas does. The Christkindl legend has died out quite a bit over the years, though Belsnickel is still going strong. However, it is still quite popular in Latin American countries affected by German immigrants such as Argentina and Brazil.
La Befana is prevalent in Italy and is quite unique in the fact that she is a woman instead of a man like essentially all other Santa Claus figures around the world. Le Befana doesn't cruise around in a sleigh of flying reindeer, but instead rides around on a flying broomstick much like a witch.
The origin story of Le Befana can differ in places in Italy, but the widespread version is that she was a kindly old woman who gave food to the Three Wise Men as they passed through town on their way to see baby Jesus. Quite similar to the typical Halloween witch, Le Befana is portrayed as a haggardly old woman who rides a flying broomstick wrapped in a black shawl. Much like Santa, she will land on the roof and deliver presents by sidling down the chimney.
However, if curious children try to stay up and spot Le Befana, she is said to whack them with the hard end of her broomstick as a punishment. On the way out from delivering presents, Le Befana is said to sweep the floor before she leaves, as coming down the chimney leaves a lot of soot on the floor.
Ded Moroz, translated to Grandfather Frost, is the Santa figure for Russia, Serbia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Poland and indeed much of the other former Soviet Republic countries. Ded Moroz can be describe as similar to Santa with his flowing red robe and long white beard, however he can also be described wearing a blue robe instead. He doesn't ride a magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, but instead drives a traditional horse drawn sleigh called a troika.
Ded Moroz has the most interesting back story of all the Christmas gift givers around the world. As the legend goes, he was once a malevolent sorcerer who would kidnap children and only return them when a ransom of presents was paid. However, through the goodness of his granddaughter Snegurochka, Ded Moroz reformed his evil ways and started giving gifts to children in order to atone. It is said that his granddaughter, referred to as the snow maiden, accompanies him on all his trips to keep him honest.
Unlike Santa, Ded Moroz will deliver gifts on New Year's Eve instead of Christmas Eve, in some versions of the story he will show up to celebrations and deliver the presents in his iconic flowing red or blue coat with his magical staff.
Sinterklaas And Black Peter
Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa. He holds quite a few similarities to the North American gift giving man with his white beard, flowing red costume and jolly demeanour. In fact, the Sinterklaas is considered one of the main influences on the creation of the modern day Santa.
Unlike the modern Santa, Sinterklaas comes to the Netherlands in later November, not by sleigh, but by steamboat from Spain. After he lands, the figure is paraded about town so all the Dutch children can see him along with his assistant, Black Peter.
Sinterklaas doesn't deliver presents on Christmas, but instead delivers them on the fifth of December, celebrating St Nicholas’ rather than Christmas. Children will place their shoes by the fireplace with some carrots for Sinterklaas' horses. The man himself doesn't come down the chimney to deliver gifts, but instead sends Black Peter who will leave presents for the good kids and coal or a bag of salts for the bad kids. However, truly bad Dutch kids should beware, Black Peter has been said to kidnap the really bad kids and drag them back to Spain!
In the portions of Germany, Austria and Hungary that do not hold true to Belsnickel and Christkindl, the Santa figure of St Nicholas is quite like the modern Santa Claus in every way except one. He is accompanied by a blood thirsty monster named the Krampus. Krampus is the anti-Claus who accompanies St Nicholas giving beatings and medieval punishments to all the naughty kids. The majority of Krampus legends throughout Europe were stamped out by the 1800s by the church, who clearly disliked the legend of this vicious demon-like creature. However, many Bavarian countries still remember to fear him. On December 5th, many Bavarian countries celebrate Krampus Day in which they dress up as the terrifying Krampus and scare people.
Father Christmas is the gift-giver in the United Kingdom and many other European countries. Along with Sinterklaas, Father Christmas had the biggest influence in the modern North American Santa Claus. In these modern times, the two gift-givers are near indistinguishable – jolly men with fluffy white beards and red coats. However, in his origins, Father Christmas was a jolly man in a green coat and he wasn't really into the gift-giving. Instead, Father Christmas merely spread good cheer.
Like Santa, Father Christmas travels around in a sleigh pulled by reindeer where he will give presents to the good children. Families leave out snacks for him. Today some describe him as still wearing his traditional green coat. However, unlike modern Santa, Father Christmas is thought to live not at the North Pole, but in Greenland, or the secluded Finnish Laplands.