Santa may seem like a pretty universal figure, but there are some countries where other characters are celebrated, either as well as the jolly man in the red coat or in his place. Many European nations hold events on 6th December as well as Christmas Day, marking St. Nicholas Day with gifts and feasts.
So, who are Santa’s counterparts on the continent and what traditions do they bring to the festive season?
The Norse God Odin may not be celebrated in modern day Scandinavia, but many aspects of his mythology have clear links to how we think of Santa today. Known by names like Long Beard and Yule Figure, Odin would ride his eight-legged horse Sleipnir across the night sky, leading a hunting party throughout the holiday of Yule.
Legend has it that he had two ravens that would listen at people’s chimneys to discover if they had been good or bad and that children would leave food for Sleipnir in boots by the fireplace. Those who had been good would then find their boots filled with gifts and sweets in the morning. A lot of that sounds very familiar.
Sinterklaas is known in the Netherlands and Belgium and is often also called De Goede Sint (The Good Saint). His appearance is very similar to that of Santa Claus – an old man with a beard wearing a red coat – but his feast is celebrated on 5th December rather than the 25th.
Originally, the event took place to encourage people to be good Samaritans and help out the poor at this time of year. Whilst some of these values still remain, Sinterklaas can usually be seen parading through city centres, throwing out sweets to the crowds. Instead of reindeer, he rides a white horse and, thanks to his Moorish heritage, arrives every year by steamboat ‘from Spain’.
The Christkind is a Bavarian tradition which involves one lucky young women being chosen to play this role every year. This ‘Christ Child’ dresses to represent an angel and usually plays a key role in the festivities of that town, opening the Christmas market and hosting special events.
Christkind is thought to be a derivation of Christkindl, the angelic figure created by Martin Luther as the Protestant replacement for Santa Claus. Nowadays, though, the two sit side by side and are celebrated at different points during the Christmas period.
Père Noël, the French version of Santa Claus, has been described as a more manicured and fashionable portrayal of Father Christmas. Like Santa, he wears a red robe and has a beard, but Père Noël prefers a fur-lined hood to the traditional red hat with a white ball on the end.
Foregoing reindeer for a donkey by the name of Gui (French for mistletoe), Père Noël exchanges straw and carrots left in children’s shoes for presents, money and sweets.
La Tante Arie
In the historical region of Franche-Comté (east France) and across the border in areas of Switzerland, Père Noël is replaced by La Tante Arie (Aunt Arie). Thought to be the reincarnation of Henriette de Montbéliard, the former Countess of the Montbéliard commune, she is depicted as a peasant who walks around with a donkey carrying gifts.
Henriette de Montbéliard was known for her kind acts to people living in her region and so La Tante Arie is said to repay any kind soul by giving presents at Christmas time. She often disguises herself as a woman in need to determine whether someone really is truly deserving of her offerings.
If you would like to spend some part of Christmas in Europe, we can help you get away this December. Call us on 0800 988 3369 to speak to our team and tailor-make your perfect holiday.