David Sedaris, an American humorist, once wrote about his favorite questions to ask when traveling. If Sedaris goes to a country that speaks another language, he asks the locals what sound a rooster makes. Cock-a-doodle-doo becomes cocorico, quiquiriqui, kukeleku. If he travels to a Christian country, he often asks when they open their Christmas presents.
The Netherlands and Belgium
A question so simple may seem boring. However, this simple question led Sedaris to learn about Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus. He discovered a whole new world in which Santa Claus, a former bishop from Turkey, lives in Spain and arrives not by sleigh but on a steamboat.
In the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium, Christmas starts early. From November the television broadcasts Sinterklaas, a Dutch version of Santa Claus, arriving in a large Dutch and Flemish city by steamboat (not sleigh – Rudolph’s nose doesn’t go down in Dutch history). For the next few weeks, Sinterklaas goes to schools and youth organizations to deliver some presents, but it’s his sidekick, Black Pete (sometimes Peter) who goes down the chimneys to fill the shoes (not stockings) of the children.
Black Pete is often represented by a man in blackface dressed in 17th-century garb with a big ruffled collar. The reason he is black can be traced to three different ideas: one is that he was Sinterklaas’s slave (stemming from the fact that the Dutch used to be huge slave transporters). Another is that Black Pete is of Moorish descent and would have a darker skin tone. But the most agreed-upon belief as to why he is black is that he comes down the chimney and is covered in soot (even though he arrives on the steamboat already covered in black paint…).
It is believed that there is more than one Black Pete delivering the candy (or punishing you if you’re on the naughty list), hence the title of Sedaris’s article. Black Pete (or the Black Petes) bring candy for weeks, but on Sinterklaas-evening, December 5th, he comes to deliver more presents to be opened on the morning of Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th). After Saint Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas returns to Spain (with Black Pete) where he supposedly lives. The idea that Sinterklaas lives there comes from the fact that he previously used to bring oranges and mandarins instead of our modern plastic candy, and these sweet fruits were associated with Spain, so people believed that he must live there. The belief continues and each year when he arrives on the steamboat, he is supposedly coming from Spain.
In Spain, however, they don’t believe Santa Claus lives in their neck of the woods. They do have other interesting Christmastime traditions, however. Spaniards celebrate the Day of the Innocent Saints on December 28th, a day filled with pranks, and at midnight on New Year’s they eat 12 grapes, one at each strike of the bell, symbolizing 12 lucky months to come.
In some parts of France (mostly the northern and eastern parts, along with southern Belgium), they believe in a story about a butcher (or in some versions, an innkeeper) who kills children but then repents to Saint Nicholas and becomes his helper, traveling with him to punish those on the naughty list. This butcher/innkeeper is known as Le Père Fouettard and in some stories he is synonymous with Black Pete.
The French, as well as many other parts of continental Europe, celebrate ‘Three Kings’ Day’ (also known as ‘Epiphany’) on January 6th. They eat galette des rois, an almond cake with a plastic king figurine inside one piece, very similar to the Kings’ Cake associated with Mardi Gras.
On Christmas Day in Australia they often eat salad, seafood, and other light, refreshing foods. December 25th coincides with the beginning of summer vacation, and people are normally trying to cool down by the beach instead of warm up by the fire with hot cocoa. They do, however, still sing the songs about Santa in the snow and believe that he is from the North Pole. Sometimes, though, Santa is depicted in board shorts and flip-flops, and even, jokingly, sitting in a sleigh led by kangaroos.
Then there is Iceland, with its 13 Santas, one coming each night for the 13 days leading up to Christmas. The 13 Santas are sometimes known as the ‘Yule Lads,’ and they are believed to be the sons of a mean mother troll who lives in the mountains and will come after misbehaving children.
But it’s not just the troll mother that kids must worry about. If you don’t wear a new article of clothing on Christmas, the ‘Christmas Cat’ (or ‘Yule Cat’) will come and get you. This tradition derives from the olden days when farmers tried to incentivize their workers with new clothes to finish processing the wool before Christmas.
In Finland, there once was the ‘Yule Goat’ who was scary and demanded presents. Then he turned into the giver of Christmas presents but over time he has been replaced by modern Santa. The word for Santa Claus, however, is Joulupukki, which still translates as ‘Yule Goat.’
In addition, Finland and other Scandinavian countries (and parts of Italy) celebrate ‘Saint Lucia’s Day’ (also known as Saint Lucy’s Day) on December 13th. The date used to coincide with the winter solstice (on a different calendar) and became known as a festival of lights. In parts of Italy, they believe that Saint Lucia, dressed in a white gown with a red sash, delivers presents to good children and coal to the naughty ones on the night of December 12th.
Germany and Austria
In Germany and Austria, it is not Santa Claus who brings the children presents, but the Christ Child, or Christkind. Thought to be an incarnation of Jesus, the Christ Child is depicted as a young blonde boy or girl with a halo, wearing white. After the Reformation, Martin Luther and others promoted the idea of changing the exchange of presents from December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day (a Catholic tradition), to December 24th with the Christ Child. Leading up to this day, many Europeans celebrate Advent by going to church the four Sundays before the arrival of the Christ Child.