Santas on Parade: Santa Costumes Around the World and Through the Ages

Santas on Parade: Santa Cosutmes Around the World

It’s coming up on that time of year again. The time when everything tastes like peppermint, smells like cinnamon, and looks like Tinkerbell did a fly-by. And reigning over it all is the man in red. The big guy himself. Santa Claus.

We all know what Santa looks like. Thick white beard, jiggly belly, red suit, black boots. At least that’s what he looks like in modern North America. That’s even what we get in X-mas pop culture like Bad Santa and Mariah Carey. But what about two hundred years ago? Or in England? Norway? Spain? Has he always gone by “Santa”? And where did the reindeer come from? How many roots does this beloved holiday icon have?

It turns out that Santa doesn’t always look the way most modern North Americans picture him. And if you try to dig into his roots you’re going to find some pretty interesting connections. Thankfully most of these variations and connections only add to the wonder of Santa and, of course, the options available for your next holiday costume party!


Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The only North American predecessor to Santa Claus is Father Christmas. He looks a lot like today’s Santa except he opts for a long robe – usually in green or blue but also sometimes red – over the coat and trousers Americans are used to seeing. He also carries a magic staff rather than the usual sack of gifts.

If he looks familiar it’s likely because he was the inspiration for the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And if you’re like me (or about my age) then you’ve seen this friendly ghost and his amazing robes in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

But Father Christmas isn’t just limited to classic Christmas media. He’s still popular in the United Kingdom. On the other side of the English Channel Papa Noel is France’s preferred form of Santa Claus. Ded Moroz is another similar figure popular throughout much of Eastern Europe. His robes tend to be more ornate but otherwise he has a very similar look to Father Christmas.


Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

Further back in history we find Saint Nicholas, a Catholic saint originating in Greece. He is depicted wearing a number of different robes but always has a long white beard and kind eyes. Saint Nicholas is also where we get one of Santa’s common nicknames, “Jolly Old Saint Nick”. Jolly and old might not be terms you want to apply to a saint but Saint Nick is a clear connection between modern Santa and the original Saint Nicholas


Odin

Odin by Hanz Thomas

Some people might be surprised to see the Norse Allfather on this list. But there are versions of Santa that predate the veneration of Saints in many places around the world. And, in northern Europe and parts of Germany, some of those figures might have evolved from one version of Odin.

Norse mythology – the home mythology Odin belongs to – involves elves that are gifted craftsman. They even made Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. Many myths also link these elves to Odin and call them “Odin’s Men”. Odin himself was known for wandering the world and, if people abided by the laws of hospitality, giving out gifts. He almost always sported a long white beard, a staff, and a robe as well. Given enough time it’s easy to see how Odin might have influenced the appearance of Father Christmas!


La Befana in Italy

La Befana

We’ve pretty well covered the figures that may have influenced our modern idea of Santa. The real fun, however, is in looking at different versions of Santa around the world!

In Italy, for example, they don’t really have Santa. He’s around, of course. Santa is sort of a global figure at this point. But traditionally Italy has Befana or La Befana, known today as The Christmas Witch. Befana is an old woman with a hooked nose that rides through the night sky and delivers gifts to well-behaved children. She usually wears tattered robes and a kerchief over her head as well. It’s a far cry from a rosy-cheeked man in a red coat and boots!


Los Reyes Magos in Spain

Los Reyes Magos

Santa isn’t big guy in much of South America or Spain either. In those regions there are not one but three figures that give out gifts around Christmas. They are Los Reyes Magos or the Three Wise Kings. In the Bible the kings followed a star to Bethlehem and brought gifts for the newborn baby Jesus. Today the three kings travel through festivals and towns giving out gifts during celebrations. And on January 6th they bring gifts to all the good children.

They have perhaps some of the most ornate robes other than Ded Moraz. Their robes are often embroidered and made of rich fabrics as is only right for kings. They wear jewels and crowns and carry ornate boxes in their hands from which they hand out their gifts.


Julenissen in Norway

Julenissen

Julenissen is sort of a Norwegian name for Santa. But traditionally the name referred to an entirely different being. Julenissen is a small gnome-like being that resembles what most people think of as a garden gnome. He wears a blue tunic with a black belt and brown pants. And rather than a crown or a floppy red hat, Julenissen wears a tall pointed red hat.

He has his own complicated origin that is a mix of a land gnome, a guardian spirit, and the gift-giving beings present in other parts of the world. So don’t let the white beard fool you. Julenissen is as unique as the other holiday figures on this list!


These are just a few of the different holiday gift givers from around the world. Honorable mention to the terrifying Krampus of German folklore. Naming them all would create an article about as long as Santa’s Nice list! And then there’s the history of Santa himself. Like most modern practices he has his roots in many different places, all of them shining through it bits and pieces of the jolly man we know today.

When it comes to your holiday party you might want to stick with the man in red that so many know and love. But you’ve got plenty of options to choose from. Whether you want to be Befana the Christmas Witch or Julenissen the protective gnome, you’re sure to stand out in a season full of joy, giving, and ho ho hope!

About the Author

Alexa S

I'm a full-time nerd doing everything I can to enjoy all the great media out there. Talk to me about Marvel, Star Trek, cartoons, books, and movies. I'm all about it!

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