Santa Doesn't Always Bring the Gifts:
Other Christmas Traditions

By Alllie

In the United States we think of Santa Claus as being as old as Christmas but the character we visualize was invented by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822 in a poem he wrote for his children called "A Visit From St. Nicholas." You remember it…"'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...." Moore gave St. Nicholas his red suit, his sack of toys and his flying sleigh pulled by reindeer. Before Moore, St. Nicholas, born about AD 280, was usually shown as a staid and dignified churchman. Moore transformed him into "a right jolly old elf". The early Dutch settlers in America called St. Nicholas "SinterKlaas" which Americans mispronounced as Santa Claus. So Santa got his name.

Thomas Nast's depiction
of Santa Claus

Our Santa was further elaborated by artist Thomas Nast who drew for Harper's Weekly starting in the 1860's. His pictures of a plump, jolly man with a white beard completed the American vision of Santa Claus.

The American Santa Claus has become popular throughout much of the world. In some countries he has absorbed or even replaced traditional gift givers but many traditional figures still remain.

In the Netherlands Saint Nicholas is still called Sinterklaas. In November he arrives by boat from Spain, along with servants called Black Peter. Crowds of people come to welcome Sinterklaas, who is dressed as a Catholic bishop and riding a white horse, as he's greeted by the Mayor and as the whole thing is shown on TV.

The arrival of Sinterklass in the Netherlands
accomplied by Black Peters

Children give carrots and water to his horse. Sinterklaas leaves presents for children the night of December 5, St. Nicholas's Birthday, and then departs on December 6th. Christmas itself is mostly a time of feasting.

Crèche Figure of
The Wise Man Balthazar
In Spain elaborate crèches and displays of Bethlehem and the manger are common. Every family seems to have one, many of them handed down for generations.

Today it is becoming more usual for some people to give presents the evening of the 24th. but traditionally, gift giving is on the night January 5th , Epiphany Eve. In Spain children believe their presents are brought on that night by the Three Wise Men. They leave out their shoes filled with carrots, straw and barley for the horses and donkeys of the Wise Men, hoping they will be visited, especially by Balthazar, who is believed to leave gifts for children. January 6th, Epiphany, is a day of parades with candy and cake handed out to children lining the streets.

In Italy Christmas is primarily a religious celebration while Italians exchange gifts on Epiphany, January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas. Presents are brought by La Befana, an old woman who the wise men asked for directions to Bethlehem. She refused because she was too busy. Later she had a change of heart and tried to find them but could not. Now she travels the world seeking the Christ Child to atone for turning away the Wise Men. Dressed as a fairy queen she gives presents to good children and dressed as a witch brings bags of ashes to bad children.

Another version of this tale has her as one of the mothers who lost her son in Herod's massacres. Unable to accept the loss she put her child's belongings in a tablecloth, threw it over her shoulder and went out in search of him. She finally came upon a young child and, thinking it was her lost son, placed the cloth sack of her son's things at the base of the manager where the baby Jesus lay. So much time had passed that she was old and gray. In gratitude for the old woman's gifts Jesus named her "La Befana", "Giver of Gifts" and gave her the blessing of having one night a year to have all the children of the world as her own and on that night to be able to visit each one and leave them gifts.

La Befana

So on the night of January 5 each year she flies through the air on a broom (or a donkey) carrying a bag of gifts for the children of Italy. The next morning they find their stockings filled with candy if they were good or coal if they were bad. Each family leaves a plate of broccoli and spice sausage and a glass of wine for the old woman.

In Switzerland gifts are brought by the Christkind, who is visualized as a beautiful angel with long blond hair. The Swiss often leave a window open at Christmas so the Christkind can enter.

The people of Finland have almost completely adopted Santa Claus but believe that he lives in Finland, where reindeer are native rather than on the ice pack at the North Pole.

In Norway the tradition of nisser, barn little barn elves with caps like Santa, has mixed together with that of the American Santa Claus who now brings the Christmas gifts. On New Years Eve children go door to door collecting candy and chocolate a few hours before the fireworks.

Norwegian nisser


No matter how you celebrate Christmas,
here's hoping you have a merry one!!


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911: Looking Back
Stories Behind Great Traditions of Christmas by Ace Collins, Clint Hansen
From Publishers Weekly
Collins serves up some little-known holiday history in this interesting book that teems with Christmas facts and legends, arranged alphabetically by topic. Readers will be fascinated to learn, for example, that the holiday shopping season used to be only a couple of weeks long, but was extended during WWII so families could get care packages off to soldiers in a timely fashion. Or that St. Francis of Assisi was one of the first people to use a live nativity scene to teach others about Christ's birth. Collins tackles customs such as Christmas gifts and cards, and the popularity of cultural events like the Nutcracker and the Messiah (which, intriguingly, fell entirely out of fashion in the decades after Handel's death). There are chapters on the history of holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees, candy canes, poinsettias, yule logs, stockings and-of course - Santa Claus.
The Night Before Christmas: The Heirloom Edition by Christian Birmingham (Illustrator), Clement Clarke Moore
The illustrations in this edition are beautiful and bring the magic of Christmas to life for both young and old. It truly is an heirloom edition made all the more special by the brass christmas stocking bookmark.
The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola
Because Befana's household chores kept her from finding the Baby King, she searches to this day, leaving gifts for children on the Feast of the Three Kings.



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