Christmas Traditions: Magical Gift-Giving from Around the World

Have you ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated in Japan? Have you pondered over the true origins of Sinterklaas? Do you think Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola? We will look at some of the weird and wonderful holiday traditions and how they are celebrated across the globe.

Coming from Ireland, I learned all about the ancient Celtic festivals that celebrated the Winter Solstice. Other neighbouring European countries rejoiced in Yule tides. Being raised in a Christian country, the feast celebrating the birth of Christ was, by far, the most prolific. Christmas – aka “mass on Christ’s day” – is a fairly recent term in the greater scheme of things but has gained much traction worldwide.

However, it is not the origin of Christmas, Noël, Weihnachten or Navidad that we have come here to discuss. It’s the one who brings the gifts. Beautiful holiday presents delivered by a magical being; this is as ingrained in our psyche as the holiday itself. But, who brings your gifts?

Depending on where you are in the world, a different magical man delivers your seasonal goodies. And, based on each location, gifts may arrive on different days. Let’s delve into the magic of holiday gift-giving traditions from around the world.

Santa Claus

Thanks to the widespread influence of Hollywood movies, perhaps one of the most globally recognised versions is Santa Claus. Across the Netherlands, the myth exists that Santa Claus was a creation of the Coca-Cola Company. However, the legend of Santa Claus can be traced all the way back to a Christian monk who lived in the third century A.D.

Perhaps you believe that, whilst St. Nicholas evolved into Old Saint Nick, Coca-Cola turned Santa Claus red. This is another common misconception. In fact, Santa in his red velvet suit adorned with white fur goes back a lot further than you might think.

The classic image we have today of Santa Claus originates in part from the description in the famous poem by Clement Clark Moore from 1823, “A Visit from St. Nicholas“. The imagery conjured up in the often-quoted poem built upon other existing depictions of Santa Claus from the 19th century. Below are some artistic drawing of Santa Claus from the 19th century featuring his iconic red coat.

A Visit from St. Nicholas
 Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

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Sinterklaas

Sounding strikingly similar to Santa Claus, it is little wonder the Dutch holiday gift-giving man is Sinterklaas. After all, the Dutch influence upon traditions in the USA cannot be underestimated. Much like his American counterpart, Sinterklaas is based on the legends of St. Nicholas. In similar fashion, he rides across the rooftops in his sleigh, led by a white horse called Amerigo. Unlike the visit of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Sinterklaas visits Dutch children on the evening of December 5th.


Santa-san

In Japan, Santa is known as サンタさん、サンタクロース or Santa-san (meaning Mr. Santa). Christmas can be traced back to the mid-16th century in Japan, but it wasn’t until Japan’s isolation policy ended in 1868 that the feast was openly observed. Although the majority of Japan is not Christian, most people today view the holiday in a secular fashion.

Perhaps more uniquely Japanese is the tradition of eating KFC on Christmas Day. In Japan each year, around 3.6 million families get their holiday meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. In fact, in some areas of the country, orders for a KFC Christmas dinner need to be placed about six weeks in advance.


Ded Moroz

On the 7th January each year, people in Ukraine celebrate Christmas according to the calendar of the Orthodox Catholic Church. On the evening of the 6th January, candles are placed in windows to welcome those less fortunate to their homes. Later that night, Father Frost – known locally as Ded Moroz – brings gifts to all those who are deserving. Ded Moroz is traditionally donned in blue (sometimes red) velvet and furs and accompanied by Snowflake Girl dressed in a silver-trimmed gown.


Krampus

Following the success of the 2015 Hollywood flick Krampus, this frightening magical Christmas creature may be familiar to you. Popular in Germany, Krampus is a “half-goat, half-demon” type creature that accompanies Santa Klaus, punishing children who have been naughty. Much like many mythical Christmas figures, Krampus has its origins in pagan beliefs.


Olentzero

Arriving on the night of the 24th December, Olentzero delivers gifts to the well-behaved children of Basque Country. If you find yourself in Euskal Herria during Christmas, you will see processions of children carrying an effigy of a man in traditional Basque clothing; this is Olentzero. The history of Olentzero closely resembles that of Santa Claus, a kind-hearted man who made toys for the orphans of the nearby town.

There are so many global traditions at Christmas, and yet they all feel just as familiar and magical. If you take anything away from this, let it be that the magic of Christmas and the joy of giving gifts is celebrated the world over.

How do you celebrate the holiday season? Leave a comment and describe what you will be doing this year?