Santa Claus Figures From Around The World Who Don’t Always Bring Christmas Joy
By Kaleena Fraga | Edited By John Kuroski
Published November 21, 2022
Updated January 17, 2024
Santa Claus is based on a real man named St. Nicholas who lived in the third century, but the generous monk also spawned countless other legends of Santa-like figures.
Most children in the United States grow up with a very clear idea of who Santa Claus is and what he looks like. Legends of Santa around the world describe him as jolly, rosy-cheeked, and endowed with powers that allow him to visit every house in one night to deliver Christmas presents.
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Most Santa Claus legends begin with St. Nicholas, a real-life, third-century monk known for his generosity and affection toward children.Wikimedia Commons
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In the United States, Santa Claus hails from the North Pole and rides in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine if you're counting Rudolph). Santa brings presents to kids by shimmying down the chimney and depositing them under a Christmas tree or in stockings.Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Brooks Brothers
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Santa Claus is sometimes referred to as "Kris Kringle" in the United States. Though the name probably comes from the German name for Santa Claus, Christkindl, it was popularized by the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, which features a man named Kris Kringle who says he is the real Santa Claus.Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
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St. Nicholas was called Sint Nikolaas in Holland and nicknamed "Sinterklaas." He rides a white horse, knocks on doors, and is accompanied by a controversial assistant named Zwarte Piet. Getty Images
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Dutch Santa Claus legends claim that Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") accompanies Sinterklaas and punishes naughty children. But he's become a controversial character, as he's often portrayed in Christmas parades in blackface, with a curly wig, big gold earrings, and red lips.Transcendental Graphics/Getty Image
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Like other Santa Claus legends, Father Christmas sprang from the legend of St. Nicholas. Though he and Santa Claus are often thought of as interchangeable, they have different origins. Father Christmas grew out of British pagan traditions and was often depicted wearing green, not red.Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
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Joulupukki, or Yule Goat, is Finland's version of Santa Claus. Men dressed as goats used to go door to door demanding food or presents, but now — influenced by modern-day Santa Claus legends — Joulupukki looks more like Santa and gives well-behaved children gifts instead.Pinterest
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Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
In Russia, Christmas is celebrated with Ded Moroz (Father Frost) and his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Unlike Santa Claus, Ded Moroz is thin, and instead of eight reindeer, his sleigh is pulled by three horses. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images
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In Eastern Europe, St. Nicholas is represented by Szent Miklós or Mikulás. On Dec. 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas Day), he gives out presents to "good" children. Szent Miklós is often accompanied by two helpers, an angel (anděl) and a devil (čert).MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images
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The French version of Santa Claus, Père Noël (Father Christmas) is fairly similar to the American Santa. He delivers gifts on Christmas Eve, but instead of putting them in stockings, he usually leaves presents in shoes or slippers left out by the fireplace.Guy CHARNEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Père Noël is also often accompanied by Père Fouettard, seen here during St. Nicholas festivities in 2018. He's in charge of whipping naughty children with his broomstick.JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP via Getty Images
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In Scandinavian countries, mischievous spirits called tomte are known to roam the countryside. Wikimedia Commons
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In Norway, the tomte are called nisse, a name that likely came from St. Nicholas. A julenisse is a gift-giving nisse who distributes presents at Christmas (and is known for its long, white beard and red hat).Norsk Folkemuseum
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Sometimes referred to as the Italian Santa Claus, La Befana is a witch-like figure who delivers presents on the eve of Epiphany (Jan. 5th).Franco Origlia/Getty Images
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In some parts of Germany, children write letters about the presents they want to the Christkind, a Christ-like figure. "Kris Kringle" might come from Christkind.Nicolas Armer/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Germany also has Weihnachtsmann, which roughly translates to Santa Claus. Though he's sometimes depicted wearing brown, green, or even purple, he delivers presents like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.Wikimedia Commons
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In Basque Christmas tradition, Christmas presents are delivered by Olentzero. He's considered to be one of the Jentillak, a mythical race of Basque giants.Ander Gillenea/Getty Images
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Like Santa Claus, Belsnickel is on the lookout for good children. Unlike Santa Claus, he'll use his birch switches on naughty children. He originated in Germany and is celebrated today by the descendants of German immigrants like the Pennsylvania Dutch.Getty Images
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In Germany and Austria, the terrifying Krampus punishes naughty children. One of the more frightening figures on this list, Krampus would even drag children to hell, according to European lore.Imagno/Getty Images
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In Japan, Santa Claus is often compared to Hotei, the god of fortune and protector of children. Like Santa Claus, Hotei has a round belly and walks around with a sack, though his sack might contain the woes of the world, not presents.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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In Iceland, the Yule Lads are 13 figures who cause mischief around the holidays. They'll leave gifts in the shoes of children who have been good — and a rotten potato in the shoes of naughty children.Pinterest
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Old Man Beggar
In Liberia, Old Man Beggar walks the streets asking for presents instead of giving them around Christmastime.Twitter
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Tío de Nadal
Tió de Nadal, or the Christmas Log, is a Christmas tradition celebrated in Spain. Families will "feed" a log for weeks, then beat it with sticks on Christmas Eve so that it "defecates" presents and sweets. Public Domain
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In Poland, Święty Mikołaj translates to Saint Nicholas. Like Santa Claus, he brings presents on Christmas Eve, which are generally opened after dinner.Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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In Brazil, Papai Noel (Father Christmas) leaves presents for children. Often, children will leave a sock on a windowsill, which Papai Noel will exchange with a gift.MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images
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Though Turkey is a majority Muslim country, Christmas is celebrated by some. Children await Noel Baba (Father Christmas) on New Year's Eve. Here, a store employee in Istanbul, Turkey dresses as Santa Claus during the holidays.Chris McGrath/Getty Images
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In Iran, Amu Nowruz plays a similar role as Santa Claus. He brings children gifts on the eve of the spring equinox. Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Santa Claus Figures From Around The World Who Don’t Always Bring Christmas Joy
But some of those households might greet the American Santa Claus with confusion. After all, different countries celebrate Christmas in different ways, and they often have very different concepts of Santa Claus — if the jolly old man is part of their holiday culture at all.
Below, see how the legend of Santa Claus first began, and learn more about Santa Claus legends in different countries around the world.
How Did The Legend Of Santa Claus Begin?
DeAgostini/Getty ImagesMany modern-day versions of Santa around the world come from the life of St. Nicholas.
According to HISTORY, modern-day Santa Claus legends stem from a third-century monk named St. Nicholas. Born into wealth, St. Nicholas gave away his inheritance to the needy, suffering, and sick. In one famous anecdote, he even left gold in the shoes or stockings of three sisters so that they could escape prostitution. This is perhaps why children await Christmas gifts in their shoes or stockings.
St. Nicholas later became the Bishop of Myra and established a reputation for his generosity and his affection for children. After his death on Dec. 6, 343 C.E., HISTORY notes that he became known as the protector of sailors and children. Around the 13th century, Catholics began celebrating his feast day on the anniversary of his death, and eventually children started receiving gifts to mark the occasion.
A popular saint through the ages, St. Nicholas was called Sint Nikolaas in Holland and nicknamed Sinterklaas. As Dutch immigrants arrived in the United States in the 18th century, they brought the Sinterklaas legend with them — and soon, Sinterklaas turned into "Santa Claus."
The Legend Of Santa Claus In The United States
Santa Claus legends in the United States slowly developed throughout the 19th century. Authors like Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore helped develop the American Santa Claus myth. Irving described Santa Claus as "riding jollily" over rooftops in 1809, per the New York Public Library, and Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," first published in 1823, described Santa Claus with a "round belly" that jiggled like a "bowlful of jelly."
As Christmas increased in significance during the Civil War (1861-1865), Santa Claus legends in the U.S. began to solidify. Then, political cartoonist and Bavarian immigrant Thomas Nast sketched out the modern-day Santa Claus, complete with a beard, suit, and round stomach.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesA Thomas Nast woodcut of Santa Claus. In the picture, Santa is considering a large stack of letters from "naughty" children.
Since then, Santa Claus has become an integral part of Christmas in America. Salvation Army volunteers dress as Santa and encourage shoppers to give money, children go to malls to sit on Santa's lap, and families across the nation leave out cookies in preparation for his visit each Christmas Eve night.
But there are major differences in Santa around the world. He doesn't always use reindeer to get around, for example — and in some places, he's not especially jolly.
From 'Krampus' To 'Joulupukki,' Meet Santa Around The World
In Europe, Santa Claus legends are a bit different. In Holland, for example, Sinterklaas still helps usher in the holiday season, but he plays a different role than the American version of Santa Claus. He rides a white horse, not a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, and he knocks on doors instead of squeezing himself down a chimney.
Listen above to the History Uncovered podcast, episode 54: Krampus, also available on Apple and Spotify.
National Geographic notes that Sinterklaas has caused controversy in the Netherlands in recent years because of his "sidekick," Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete," who usually appears in blackface.
REMKO DE WAAL/AFP via Getty ImagesA man dressed as Sinterklaas in Maassluis, Netherlands, on Nov. 12, 2016. He is followed by the controversial Dutch Christmas character "Black Pete."
Santa Claus figures in other countries also include Christkind (or Christkindl) in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Tió de Nadal in Spain, the Yule Lads in Iceland, the infamous Krampus, and many more. Learn about some of these Santa Claus legends and others in the gallery above, and see how Christmas is celebrated in different ways around the world.
After learning more about Santa around the world, discover the story of the "anti-Santa Claus," Krampus. Or, take a look at this letter to Santa that's over a century old.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.