It is no accident that Christmas and New Year are holidays the kids look forward to the most. December festivities and their main characters are rooted in Europe’s distant past. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are holidays celebrated by the entire world, but it is children who look forward to them the most. There are many reasons for that, but the seductive iconic characters that come with these holidays, the gifts and the atmosphere of joy are certainly some of the most important. Children form their bond with Christmas and New Year in their early childhoods, attracted by rituals that make these days magic: decorating the tree, the house, opening presents. As special dates, these holidays appear in numerous fairy tales, myths, children’s literature. At the center of all the rituals is Santa Claus, a fictitious character fulfilling kids’ wishes. The true origin of Santa Claus, as a benevolent figure that brings children good fortune, actually lies at the intersection of ancient pagan beliefs and early Christian legends that absorbed a major part of pre-Christian heritage.
Even though the character was not built on any particular prototype found in the mythologies of Germanic and Slavic peoples, it is clear that it unites the traits of Odin, the chief Germanic deity and the Christian bishop Nicolas, whose holiday is celebrated (in line with the Gregorian calendar) just before the New Year, on 19 December.
Namely, Bishop Nicolas, who was the administrator of a province in Byzantine Anatolia, gained renown as a protector of children due to his miracles and good deeds.
All nations in Europe added their own touch to the final character of Santa Claus; the story most of the world adheres to today has the favorite character of all children living in the far North, in Laponia, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He usually brings presents at midnight, shimmying down the chimney, for children to enjoy on Christmas morning or the morning of 1 January. American pop-culture also had a major influence on the nuances of the character and story.
From culture to culture, there are small differences in the official version of Santa Claus’s origin, character and adventures, but these differences are mostly negligible.
In traditions of numerous European nations, the legends of St. Nicolas, despite of his “share” in the creation of the character of Santa Claus, live a life of their own and are equally accompanied by well-established rituals. For example, in the Netherlands, St. Nicolas is celebrated on 5 December, as in Belgium. The impact of local folk lore is obvious in every culture that keeps to these traditional beliefs.