The Multi-Cultural Origins of Santa Claus

Christmas is coming soon and countries all around the world will be celebrating the widespread holiday. Many cultures celebrate the December day with various traditions, but most have one commonality: an old man giving gifts.

Here in the U.S, we call him Santa Claus and he slides down the chimney bringing gifts to well-behaved children. But what do they call this old man in other languages and cultures? And how did this old man become so popular over so many countries? The origins may surprise you.

As you may remember from our Halloween blog post back in October, many religions combined their holidays with those of other cultures.  For example, when the Roman Christians invaded the Germanic, Nordic countries, they moved the day of some holidays to coincide with the already existing celebrations of the locals. Many academic studies have proven that Jesus was not born on December 25th, but more likely in the summer or fall.

Before the Christians migrated to northern Europe, the Pagan people already had a winter celebration called “Yule.” The mythology was that during this time, supernatural events happened, including a “wild hunt.”  The hunt was led by the Norse god Odin, who had a long white beard and rode an eight legged horse through the night sky.

Wait what? Yes, you read that right! Odin—the Norse god with one eye who fathered Thor and was played by Anthony Hopkins in the Marvel movies—is the basis of the man we now know as Santa Claus. Odin joined forced with the Christians, traded in his horse for eight reindeer, and became Father Christmas, giving gifts to children on the day of Christ’s birth.

While the Romans and Germans were combining religious celebrations in northern Europe, a man named Nicholas was born to Greek parents in the part of the Roman Empire that is now Turkey.  Nicholas became known for miracles and secret gift giving, and soon became known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Many cultures still celebrate the man by putting coins inside shoes, just as he did during his life.

The legends of Saint Nicholas spread among the Christian communities, and were translated into various languages. The Dutch pronounced the name as “Sinterklaas,” and the traditions of gift giving continued to grow.  When Europeans started flocking to the shores of the New World, they brought their winter traditions with them, and in the 1800s, the Americans threw them into the melting pot. In 1809, Washington Irving published “A History of New York,” which Americanized the New York Dutch’s Sinterklaas into Santa Claus. Irving’s humorous piece depicted the Saint as a Dutch sailor with a pipe and a large belly.

Irving wasn’t the only author who morphed the traditions of Christmas. A children’s book in 1821 had a poem about “Santeclaus,” an old man who brought presents to children on his reindeer sled.  The poem known today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” standardized the belly and sleigh, and even named the reindeer. It also created many of the traits of Santa, including entering through the chimney and his bag of toys. The myth of Santa Claus continued to grow and evolve and spread across the world.  Today, Christmas is celebrated in countries across the globe.  Many cultures celebrate a version of Santa, here are some terms used around the world, many coming from Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas.

Whether you need your Christmas marketing materials translated into other languages, or just want to send a holiday email to your international friends and co-workers, Lionbridge ondemand has you covered.  Come check out our website for all your translation needs.