Cultural Uniqueness ... The Magic Of Christmas

January 23, 2009
Written by USARiseUp Staff in
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painting of Santa Claus

As people throughout the world prepare to celebrate the Christmas season, wanted to share this journey into the cultural symbols and traditions the children and adults from other countries observe during this magical time of the year.

In America, he is Santa Claus, but he has many names and symbolizes a wide variety of different things in other countries. As we kick off this brief overview of the origins of Santa Claus and his many counterparts, one thing stands out; despite our cultural differences, we share many similar Christmas traditions. Also keep in mind that over the years, Santa Claus has overcome all issues of race and ethnicity in America and the world in general.

Although the picture on the left is the Santa made famous by the old Coca Cola commercials, and the one on the right is a photo from a military hospital, the Santa Claus of today appeared several years after the publication of the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "The Night Before Christmas" in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823. One of the first artists to define Santa Claus' modern image was Thomas Nast, a 19th century American cartoonist, who in 1863, in Harper’s Weekly, established Santa as a heavyset man with a long white beard that wore a red coat with a white collar and cuffs, white cuffed red trousers with a black leather belt and boots, and his sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer that fly.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or just Santa, is a legendary figure who leaves his home at the North Pole on Christmas Eve, December 24th, to brings gifts to the homes of the good children. Other legends associated with Santa include his magical elves that spend all year building toys in Santa’s workshop in anticipation of Christmas.

Historically, the Yule Goat folklore pre-dates Christianity as one of the oldest Scandinavian and Northern European Yule and Christmas symbols and traditions. The Yule Goat is often connected to the Norse God Thor, who is said to have ridden the skies in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngniostr.

The Yule Goat is depicted differently in other countries, for example, in Scandinavia, the Yule Goat was an invisible creature that appeared before Christmas to ensure that the Yule preparations were done right. And in the 19th century, the Yule Goat became a giver of Christmas presents, and eventually evolved into Jultomte or Julenisse, meaning Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Today, the traditions of the Yule Goat are often represented in a Christmas ornament made of straw or roughly-hewn wood, and bound with red ribbons.

Joulupukki is the Finnish name for Santa Claus or Father Christmas. The name Joulupukki literally means Yule Goat or Christmas Goat.

This name is likely to come from an old Finnish tradition, where people dressed in goat hides, the apparition being called a Nuuttipukki, used to go from house to house after Christmas eating leftover food. Today, Joulupukki looks and behaves mostly like his American version, but there are differences. Joulupukki's workshop is situated in Korvatunturi, and he wears warm red clothes, uses a walking stick, and travels in a sleigh driven by reindeer.

The popular song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in its Finnish translation, Petteri Punakuono, has led to Rudolph's general acceptance in mythology as Joulupukki's lead reindeer. Joulupukki has a wife, Joulumuori ("Old Lady Christmas"), but there is not much said about her.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve falls on December 5, and it is Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (black Pete) who delivers the gifts to the good children. In Belgium, the children put their shoe in front of the fireplace on the evening of December 5 and wake up on December 6th to find their gifts.

The folklore associated with Saint Nicolas parallels Germanic mythology in that he bears a resemblance to Odin with the beard, hat, and spear, but in this instance, his cloth bag is held by the servants and used to catch naughty children.

Originally known as Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and many other commonwealth countries, he was initially known as the spirit of good cheer.

Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus are often used synonymously, historically, they were extremely different characters. Father Christmas did not originally bring gifts, nor was he associated with children.

Over time, Father Christmas merged with the character called "Sir Christmas," "Lord Christmas," or "Old Father Christmas," to create Father Christmas, the British Santa which survives today.

However, as Santa Claus became the primary symbol in American culture, most British people began using the expressions of Father Christmas and Santa Claus as synonyms for the same character.

Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Greek Bishop in Lycia, garnered a reputation for secret gift giving with his annual tradition of leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

Saint Nicholas is believed to be the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Santa Claus. He was a 4th century Christian bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now Turkey.

Nicholas, famous for his generous gifts to the poor, also presented the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries to ensure that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Germany he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.

In the Czech Republic, the gifts are delivered by Ježíšek, which translates to Baby Jesus.

Though Christmas pre-dates Christianity in the Czech Republic, and it was originally celebrated in honor of the return of the sun at the height of winter, the symbolism dramatically changed with the influence of Christianity.

Today, the celebrations honor both the birth of Jesus and the welcoming of the Sun’s return.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from

Czech Ježíšek:
Scandinavian Yule Goat:
Dutch Sinterklaas:
Father Christmas:
Saint Nicholas of Myra:
Santa Claus: