Christmas Traditions Around The World: Santa And Other Gift-Givers

Santa Claus isn't the only one bearing gifts each year during the Christmas season. He has a number of contemporaries around the world.

Santa is eagerly anticipated each year by millions of children. Perhaps the most difficult night for hopeful youngsters to fall asleep is the night when good old St. Nick is due to arrive. This jolly old elf is not the only holiday figure that's so anxiously awaited each year, however. All around the world, these generous gift-bearers make scheduled stops at the houses of all good little boys and girls - and some of them even stop when there are youngsters who haven't been so good. Let's take a look at some of the holiday figures that have been delighting children for generations.

PAPAI NOEL - Brazil

When Christmas time rolls around, Papai Noel - who is believed to live in Greenland when not delivering holiday gifts - comes to visit the children in a silk Christmas outfit, so that he won't overheat in the summer temperatures. This holiday gift-giver didn't appear in Brazil until the 1950s, and wasn't popularized until the 1960s, when commercialism took over. He leaves gifts for good children in much the same way that Santa Claus does in the western world.

ST. BASIL - Greece

In Greece, St. Basil takes on the Santa Claus role and, just like his North American counterpart, comes down the chimney with a bag full of presents for the kiddies. Greek families typically leave a log in the fireplace, so that St. Basil has something to step onto when he makes the trek down the chimney. Gifts are then left for all of the good little children. Unlike Santa, however, St. Basil doesn't come on the night before Christmas. He doesn't appear until the night before St. Basil's Day - which is celebrated on January 1st.

KLEESCHEN - Luxembourg

The children of Luxembourg believe that Kleeschen - another name for St. Nicholas - comes down from heaven on the night of December 5th to fill the shoes of the children who have placed them by their bedroom door (or on the windowsill) in anticipation of his arrival. His feast day is, then, celebrated on December 6th. During the holiday season, Kleeschen often pays visits to children at school, and he's often seen in shops around Luxembourg prior to his feast day.

JULNISSEN - Norway

Julnissen doesn't refer to a single individual, but rather to a group of them. These holiday creatures are actually little gnomes that come to bring gifts to the children of Norway. These fellows are a spin-off of the ancient Norse character by the name of Julesvenn, who originally came during the feast of Jul so that he could hide the lucky stalks of barley around the houses. In the same tradition as the North American Santa Claus, the Julnissen come on Christmas Eve.

THE MAGI - Argentina

The children of Argentina practice the custom of putting a shoe beneath the Christmas tree - or perhaps beside their bed - when awaiting the Magi. The Wise Men arrive on the night of January 5th, the eve of The Epiphany, which is when the people of Argentina celebrate the holidays. Just as the children of North America leave cookies and milk for Santa, Argentinean children leave hay and water outside the main door of the house, so that the horses of the Magi can be refreshed during their journey.

VIEJO PASCUERO - Chile

Viejo Pascuero - or Old Man Christmas - is very much like Santa Claus, in that he wears the traditional red suit and drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer. However, when it's time to leave the packages for the little ones, he doesn't come down the chimney. Instead, Viejo Pascuero comes through the window, which is the main divergence from the Santa character. Old Man Christmas has often been seen accompanied by a llama, although this doesn't provide any transportation for him, apparently.

THE CHRIST CHILD - Czech Republic

Folks in the Czech Republic receive their Christmas gifts from the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, immediately after dinner. It is believed that, while the family gathers around the table and enjoys a holiday meal, the Christ Child comes and places gifts beneath the Christmas tree. At some point, after the meal, a bell rings to announce that He's come to the house and deposited the gifts that the youngsters have anxiously awaited. Children must be patient, as they're not allowed to see the tree until after the Christ Child has come and gone.

ST. NICHOLAS - Germany

As with some other countries, St. Nicholas is the gift-bearer for the children. The people of Germany believe that on the night of December 5th - the eve of his feast day - St. Nicholas goes from house to house with his "Book of Sins". For those children who have been good throughout the year, gifts are left in the shoe or boot that's been left by the fireplace. For those who have not been so good, they can expect to see a boot full of twigs. Other Germans - particularly those of German descent in Pennsylvania, USA - rely on Bellsnickel to bring the holiday gifts. This St.-Nicholas-substitute brings a switch with him, so that any boys or girls who haven't been good during the year are struck by the switch, rather than have twigs placed in their boot, as St. Nicholas is believed to do by some.

BABBO NATALE - Italy

While there are different Christmas entities that are credited with distributing gifts during the holiday season, one of the more popular is Babbo Natale - Father Christmas - who makes his way from house to house on Christmas Eve. In times gone by, however, La Befana - the Christmas Witch - would bring the little ones their gifts on the eve of January 6th. In other areas, the holiday gifts were brought by Gesu Bambino - Baby Jesus - on Christmas Eve. Babbo Natale is the most recent of the Christmas benefactors.

SANTA GRANDFATHER - South Korea

A gift-giving Santa figure is just beginning to be enjoyed by some families in South Korea, due to the influence of the western world. In the South Korean homes that do practice the coming of a gift-giver, the Santa Claus that's known by the western hemisphere is referred to as Santa Grandfather, and the children of South Korea eagerly await his coming on Christmas Eve. A large part of the country, however, doesn't recognize Christmas as a legitimate holiday, since Christians only comprise approximately 25% of the population.

GOEDOE PA - Suriname

After winning their independence from the Netherlands, Suriname changed their holiday customs - and revamped their image of the Santa figure, as well. According to contemporary practice, Goedoe Pa (Dearest Daddy) - and his servants - come to the houses of good little boys and girls to leave gifts on the eve of December 6th. At that time, he enjoys milk and cookies that have been put out by the children and leaves them gifts - with poems attached - next to the shoes that they've put out, in hopes of some holiday surprises.

THE SMALLEST CAMEL - Syria

Christmas is celebrated on January 6th in Syria and, as such, the children await the arrival of their gifts, which are brought late on the previous night by the smallest camel of the Wise Men. The idea for this seasonal character came from the story of the Nativity and the Three Wise Men who visited the Christ Child. Legend has it that the smallest camel had a very hard time making the long journey, but resolved to see it to its fruition, in spite of his exhaustion. As a reward for his loyalty and strong desire to see the Christ Child, he was granted immortality. Now, each year on the night of January 5th, the littlest camel comes to bring gifts to God's children.

These and many other characters bring happiness, joy and - perhaps - a few giggles to the children of the world during December and January each year.

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