The strange (and sometimes dark) history of Santa Claus in Europe

Steven Mike Voser
Steven Mike Voser
U
Unlike in the US, Santa has many different faces in Europe. We explore the strange and dark histories behind some of Europe's Santas.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Santa Claus is easily one of the most recognisable legends in the world.

But did you know that there are many alternative versions of Santa floating about Europe, based on old folklore and tradition?

In this article, we’re going to look at the strange, and sometimes dark history of Europe’s many different Santas.

 

1. THE NETHERLANDS: SINTERKLAAS AND PETER

The Santa Claus tradition in the Netherlands has come under a lot of scrutiny recently.

The Dutch version of Santa Claus is Sinterklaas (or Sint-Nikolaas).

He is a depiction of Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, and often referred to as De Sint (“The Saint”), De Goede Sint (“The Good Saint”), and De Goedheiligman (“The Good Holy Man”).

But their take on Santa isn’t the reason this Dutch December tradition has come under fire lately.

Instead, the problem has to do with “Zwarte” Piet (“Black” Peter), the saint’s Moorish apprentice, often seen dressed in a colourful Moorish robe and feathered cap, carrying a sack of candy for the kids.

Traditionally, Pieten also carried a chimney sweep’s broom which they’d use to spank naughty children. Some traditional songs also tell of Pieten stuffing naughty kids in their sack and taking them back to Spain.

To celebrate the legend of Saint Nicholas, many Dutch people still dress up and wear Piet costumes around Christmas time. The traditional blackface, however, is (controversially) more and more becoming a thing of the past, as tradition gives way to more socially acceptable standards.

The “Zwarte” Piet often gets scrutinised for racism. Nonetheless, the legend and celebrations are still popular today and are being re-shaped to fit the new social norm.

The name day of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6th and is celebrated by handing out gifts on the eve of December 5th (Saint Nicholas’ Eve) or surprising young children with a mountain of gifts on the morning of the 6th of December.

The legend of Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Northern France, though the exact day on which this happens may vary depending on the region.

 

The name day of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6th.

 

2. GERMANY: DER WEIHNACHTSMANN, CHRISTKIND, NIKOLAUS, AND KRAMPUS

Germany has a variety of interesting Christmas personalities.

The first is der Weihnachtsmann, which literally translates to “the Christmas man” or Father Christmas.

Der Weihnachtsmann is pretty similar to Sinterklaas and Santa, and is also based on the Patron Saint of Children, Saint Nicholas.

However, der Weihnachtsmann can sometimes be seen carrying a tail, which is what he gives to naughty children instead of presents.

He is also accompanied by a servant or apprentice, known as Knecht Ruprecht (“Knecht” meaning servant).

The story of how Ruprecht came to be Santa’s helper varies across regions of Germany.

According to some stories, he first worked as a farmhand; according to others, he was a foundling who Saint Nicholas raised from childhood.

Ruprecht is usually depicted wearing a black or brown robe with a pointed hood; he carries a long staff and a bag of ashes.

He is sometimes also accompanied by a few helpers, who are usually depicted as old women with blackened faces.

According to German folklore, Ruprecht would ask children to recite a prayer; those that are able get apples, gingerbread, and nuts in return.

Those that can’t, on the other hand, get a beating with Ruprecht’s sack of ashes.

Some variations of the story say that good children get sweets from Saint Nicholas, while naughty kids get lumps of coal, sticks, and stones from Knecht Ruprecht.

Another popular German Christmas personality is das Christkind/Christkindl (“the Christ Child” in English).

Although English people often confuse Christkindl with Baby Jesus, Christkindl is actually depicted as an angelic female with blonde hair and wings (similar to St Lucia in Sweden).

Like Santa Claus in The US, the Christkindl brings children their presents on the 24th of December, leaving them under the Christmas tree.

Parents usually tell their children to hide and wait for the sound of the bell, which signifies she has come and left her presents.

The legend of Christkindl was promulgated by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th century and was intended to reference the reincarnation of Jesus.

And, to juxtapose the beautiful innocence of the Christkindl, the Germans have Krampus the Christmas demon.

Krampus is depicted as a horned figure, half man and half goat.

He carries chains, is covered with black or brown hair/fur, has a long, pointed tongue (usually shown hanging from his mouth), and pointed fangs.

During the Christmas season, Krampus would punish naughty children while Saint Nicholas rewarded the well-behaved.

The legend of Krampus is believed to have pre-Christian roots.

Today, it is still a common part of Christmas tradition in parts of Germany, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Northern Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

In these regions, most alpine towns celebrate the annual Krampuslauf parade, in which young men dress up as Krampus.

 

3. SLAVIC COUNTRIES: DED MOROZ

Ded Moroz, which literally translates to “Old Man Frost”, is a Slavic Christmas legend similar to Father Christmas.

Unlike Santa or some of the other Santa-like legends we’ve listed so far, however, Ded Moroz brings presents on New Year’s Eve.

Similar to Santa Claus, he is generally depicted as a jolly old man with a long white beard, dressed in long blue and white robes and valenki, a kind of fur boot worn in winter in Russia and other nearby countries.

Traditionally, Ded Moroz is accompanied by Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper, who is also dressed in similar robes.

The origins of Ded Moroz have been linked back to pre-Christian times.

In some texts, he is believed to be the son of Veles and Mara, two pagan gods.

Ded Moroz became very popular in Slavic countries following the Russian Revolution, when Christmas and other Christian holidays were banned in many of these regions.

Today, the legend of Ded Moroz is still popular in many places, especially modern Russia.

As of 1998, Veliky Ustyug in Vologda Oblast, Russia, has been officially named Ded Moroz’s hometown.

 

The Swedish celebrate Christmas on the 24th.

 

4. SWEDEN: JULTOMTEN

The final take on Santa Claus we’ll look at in this article comes from Sweden.

Like in many parts of the world, the Swedish celebrate Christmas on the 24th.

The being in charge of bringing the presents to mark the holiday is known as Jultomten (sometimes just called Tomten).

While today Jultomten is also used interchangeably to refer to Santa Claus, it can also refer to a kind of hybrid being between Santa Claus and a Nisse.

Nisse are mythological creatures found throughout Nordic folklore.

They are usually depicted as small, bearded creatures (no taller than 30cm), often wearing tall, cylindrical hats.

Nisse are typically associated with the winter solstice and Christmas season and, according to old folklore, would look after farms or houses while the farmer and their families slept.

While they are generally depicted as helpful creatures, they can also be angry and punished human farmers by killing livestock or wreaking havoc on their farm.

Today, the Jultomte is usually portrayed like Santa Claus, despite its different cultural origins.