Christmas traditions: The different ways countries refer to Santa Claus around the world

Santa Claus pulling thumbs up against black and white collection of world flags on badges
Here are just a few of the different iterations of Santa Claus. Photo credit: Getty Images

Christmas is a time of togetherness, and what better way to get in the festive spirit than to take a trip around the world (not in a sleigh) to see how our friends far and wide celebrate the holiday?

Whether you call him Santa Claus, St Nick or Kris Kringle, the Man in Red sure gets around - and each country that celebrates Christmas has a different way of referring to the bearded, gift-bearing man.

So, how do different countries talk about this iconic Christmas character? Preply, an online language learning marketplace, has released a new map visualising the many different monikers for Santa across the globe - revealing some interesting insights into festive folklore.

Here are just a few of the different iterations of Santa Claus.

Father Christmas  

'Father Christmas' is the most traditional name in the English language, with his origins steeped in English folklore. One of the earliest depictions of 'Father Christmas' has been traced back to the 1600s, when playwright Ben Johnson's 'Christmas, His Masque' was performed for the royal court.

In the play, the character of 'Christmas' appears in old-fashioned clothes with a long, thin beard, calling himself 'old Christmas' and 'old Gregorie Christmas'. The character also brought with him many children, each personifying a different tradition - such as 'Carol' and 'Mince Pie'. Thus, the perception of Christmas as a 'father' was supposedly born.

The character of Father Christmas came under attack at certain points in history, with Christmas itself even being banned in England in the 17th century. However, it returned after the Restoration of 1660.

Many languages and countries around the world have adopted the same moniker: the Spanish name Papá Noel directly translates to Father Christmas, and is used in Spain and much of South America.

Other countries also refer to the festive figure as Father Christmas, but in their native languages - here are some of these translations:

  • Hana Kōkō (Māori - New Zealand)  
  • Père Noël (French - France, Cameroon, Morocco)  
  • Papá Noel (Spanish - Spain & much of South America)  
  • Pai Natal (Portuguese - Portugal)  
  • Papai Noel (Portuguese - Brazil)  
  • Baba Noel (Arabic - Iraq)  
  • Bābā Noel (Persian - Iran)  
  • Noel Baba (Turkish).  

Grandpa Frost  

The name Grandpa/Grandfather Frost originates from Ded Moroz, a legendary figure of Slavic mythology that is similar to Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas. The tradition of Ded Moroz is most common in eastern Europe, particularly in Russia (Дед Мороз), where he serves as the symbol of the festive season. Other countries that have the Ded Moroz figure are Croatia (Đed Mraz), Macedonia, Serbia (Деда Мраз - Deda Mraz) and Belarus (Дзед Мароз - Dzied Maroz).  

However, Ded Moroz has several major differences to the legend of Father Christmas: according to Express to Russia, Ded Moroz was denounced as a demon by the church. Capable of freezing entire armies at the click of his ice-cold fingers, 'Morozko' - as he was known by ancient Slavs - was seen as a wise but wicked wizard.  

In the late 19th century, Ded Moroz underwent a character transformation and was slowly welcomed into families' Christmas celebrations as a bringer of presents and goodwill. He went from being depicted as haggard to a well-dressed noble man and, like Santa, acquired a sleigh, which was pulled by three snow-white horses.  

Other names portraying Santa as a grandfather figure around the world include:

  • Өвлийн өвгөн (Övliin övgön) – 'Grandfather Winter' (Mongolia)
  • თოვლის ბაბუა (tovlis babua) – 'Grandfather Snow' (Georgia)
  • Ձմեռ Պապ (Dzmer Papik) – 'Winter Grandfather' (Armenia)
  • Kalėdų Senelis – 'Grandfather Christmas' (Lithuania)
  • Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri – 'Grandfather of the New Year' (Albania).

Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas

Before the symbol of Father Christmas emerged in England, there was the separate legend of Sinterklaas. As per English Heritage, the origins of Sinterklaas can be found in the stories of Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek bishop from Myra, now in modern-day Turkey, who became known for his acts of charity and generous gift-giving. This historical figure inspired the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, which in turn, is said to serve as the basis for the modern-day Santa Claus character.  

Many European countries still use some form of Saint Nicholas, colloquially referred to as St Nick, to talk about Santa, such as Hungary (Mikulás), Switzerland (Samichlaus), Austria (St Nikolaus/Nikolo) and Czech Republic (Svatý Mikuláš).

Much like the English Father Christmas, Sinterklaas came under attack during and after the Reformation, with Protestants wanting to move away from veneration of the saints. The baby Jesus was promoted as a more appropriate giver of gifts – known in Germany as das Christkindl, later Anglicised as 'Kris Kringle'. However, popular traditions managed to survive.  

Santa Claus  

The modern figure of Santa Claus originated in North America and became popular in the 19th century. The character is based on the folklore traditions of Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, from which the name is derived.

While it's not entirely clear how Sinterklaas arrived in America to become the modern-day Santa Claus, it's suggested his story made its way to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam - which later became New York.

As per English Heritage, some historians believe the Santa Claus character first appeared in England in 1864, when he featured alongside Father Christmas in a story by the American author Susanna Warner. By the 1880s, however, Santa Claus had almost completely merged with Father Christmas, with the latter soon seen as an outdated figure.

Many countries refer to the Christmas character as 'Santa' or 'Santa Claus', or their own variant of the name - here are some examples:  

  • El Salvador - Santa  
  • Cuba - Santa Cló  
  • Puerto Rico, Venezuela - Santa Clós  
  • Philippines - Santa Klaus  
  • Mexico - Santo Clós  
  • Thailand - ซานตาคลอส (Sāntākhlxs̄)  
  • Japan - サンタクロース (Santakurōsu)  
  • South Korea - 산타 할아버지 (Santa hal-abeoji, lit. 'grandfather Santa'). 
Santa claus showing thumbs up gesture on red background - stock photo
Santa Claus. Photo credit: Getty Images

Yule Goats and Gnomes  

Northern European countries have their own Christmas mythology and traditions, originating from the old pagan festival of Yule. Cognates of Yule are still used in Scandinavian languages, as well as in Finnish and Estonian, to discuss the holiday. 

In Finland, the figure of Santa Claus is called Joulupukki. This literally translates to 'yule goat' or 'Christmas goat' and is based on pagan traditions, but the term is now often conflated with modern-day Santa Claus. 

Norway and Sweden also have their own names for Santa which originate from Nordic folklore. The Norwegian name Julenissen and Swedish name Jultomten translate to 'yule pixie', 'yule elf' or 'yule gnome', but are now used in modern language to refer to the figure of Santa. The names Jõuluvana (used in Estonia) and Julemanden (used in Denmark) roughly mean 'Old Yule' and 'The Yule Man'.

Thirteen Yule Lads  

The majority of countries have only one Santa Claus who brings presents to children at Christmas, but Iceland has 13: the Jólasveinar, or 'Yule Lads'. The Jólasveinar are said to visit children one by one on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas Day, leaving a treat for those who are well-behaved. Many Icelandic children leave their shoes by the window, hoping the Yule Lads will leave them a gift. Misbehaving children supposedly receive a potato.

According to Visit Iceland, the 13 Yule Lads, their mother and the Yule Cat are a family of trolls associated with Icelandic folklore. They are typically mountain-dwelling, but during the Christmas season, they sometimes visit human settlements - and while some are friendly, others are not. In a drastic departure from the saintly image of Santa, the Jólasveinar are pranksters; in recent times, however, their image has been rehabilitated, and they are now seen as light-hearted and fun-loving as opposed to mischievous. 

You can see the full map here.