Santa Claus of a thousand faces


Although American children still have weeks to wait for him, here in Central Europe and Hungary Santa Claus is already on his way. This is quite understandable, as he can’t deliver all the presents to the whole world in one day – but when exactly will he arrive at each of his destinations? And who exactly brings the presents to which countries? In this blog post we will look at both the common and the differencing Santa Claus traditions in Central and Eastern European countries.

What is Santa’s name again?

The legend of Santa Claus dates back to St. Nicholas, who became known as a helper of the poor, secretly delivering donations and gifts to needy families, especially children. The story of the saint and his many legends are worthy of a separate article, but even if we focus on the figure of Santa Claus alone, we can find many differences between countries. While in many places he is still known as Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus, St Nikolaus, etc.), in Central and Eastern Europe he has become more distant from Nicholas even in his name, and in Western Europe he is often known as Father Christmas (Père Noël, Papá Noel, Pai Natal, etc.). The Hungarian name Mikulás is a variant of Miklós (Nicholas in Hungarian), borrowed from the Czech language. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, just as in Hungary, the character who (among others) brings gifts to children is Mikuláš (although in Hungary, the word Télapó, meaning ‘Father Winter’ also became widespread during the socialist era), but, for example, in Southern Slavic states he arrives under the name Father Frost (Deda Mraz, Dedek Mraz, etc.). The same goes for Russian and Ukrainian territories (Ded Moroz / Did Moroz), although Ukrainians also refer to him as Saint Nicholas (Svyatiy Mikolay). In Poland, according to the folklore, the figure of Gwiazdor (Starman) is the bringer of gifts at the beginning of winter, although in modern times he is becoming more or less identified with Santa Claus (Święty Mikołaj).

OK, but when does he arrive?

In Central Europe, we can say that, with few exceptions, Santa Claus arrives on December 6th. It is true in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia; although in Serbia, for example, he comes only on New Year’s Eve. As we move further East, the situation is no longer clear: As they do not identify him with the figure of Saint Nicholas, he does not arrive on his name day, and does not necessarily even bring presents.

But who brings the presents then?

Hungarian children should be very happy that they receive presents in two “rounds”, on December 6th and at Christmas – the division of labour between Santa Claus and Baby Jesus (and his angels) is quite clear there. The situation is similar in Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic. In Russian-speaking countries Snegurochka, also known as The Snow Maiden (and granddaughter of Father Frost), is most often seen as the gift bearer, although they work closely together on the gifts and their delivery. They only arrive on New Year’s Eve (which is nevertheless earlier than Christmas because of the Orthodox calendar). In Serbia, too, Father Frost only arrives on New Year’s Eve, although he has no helpers there…

Summary – if at all possible…

As we delve deeper into the subject, it becomes more and more clear that Santa Claus has a different name everywhere, he comes at different times, has different helpers, and in some places it is not even he who brings the winter presents to children. There is a lot of literature on the subject, and the English-language Wikipedia even has a separate page called ‘List of Christmas and winter gift-bringers by country’ (which we also used, as well as other sources). We are sure that entire books could be written on the smaller or larger differences that make Santa Claus so multifaceted in different countries. Just don’t tell the children, or they might get too confused! And, with regard to translators, we wish them good luck in accurately translating the cultural specificities of Santa Claus… it won’t be easy!

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