Earlier this week, I shared a link on Twitter to a piece on Brain Pickings on how anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested we talk to children about Santa Claus:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus—who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself—can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

Mead says that her own parents often talked with her about different Santa traditions around the world, and that seemed like a good exercise to try as many of us scramble with our last minute holiday preparations, so we're going to take a walk around the globe today and follow the many forms of Santa.

In much of the Western world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. For Christians this is the day recognized as Christ's birthday, but we know that this date is questionable. It was likely selected by Roman church officials to coincide with existing solstice festivals to help with the adoption and acceptance of Christianity. As a result, Christmas has a blended past that marries pagan traditions with religious observances and—today—commercial practices.

Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, with his red suit and jolly demeanor also has a bit of a mixed origin. He is a combination of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas—both of whom appear to be rooted in the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas of Myra was a saint and a Bishop with a reputation for secret gift giving. He was known for putting coins in shoes left out for him, and one legend has him throwing bags of gold coins through the window of a poor man's home to help provide a dowry for his three daughters, saving them from prostitution. The tradition of Saint Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6) spread to many countries, and on the eve of this festivity which marks Saint Nicholas' death, presents are exchanged.

The Dutch Sinterklaas appears to make the distinction between good and bad children (although in practice, all children receive gifts). He has a helper named Zwarte Piet, whose black skin has made him a source of controversy in recent years. His role is primarily to punish bad children by taking them away in a sack. Tradition requires that children leave their shoes by the fireplace with some hay or a carrot for Sinterklaas' horse, and in return he leaves them chocolate coins or some other token. A sack is also often placed outside of the house or in the living room with presents for the family. Father Christmas on the other hand had nothing to do with gifts—he represents the Spirit of Christmas as the personification of good cheer.

While St. Nicholas seems to have a pretty far reach, there are instances where the role of the holiday gift-giver and spreader of goodwill and cheer is fulfilled by characters who may only vaguely resemble the red-robed holiday archetype:

  • In Japan, a Buddhist monk named Hoteiosho visits families on New Year's Eve to deliver gifts. He allegedly has eyes in the back of his head, and is also depicted as rotund and jolly as Santa Claus.
  • La Befana is a friendly witch in Italy who leaves candies, figs, and other goodies for good children, and dark candy for bad ones. Parents leave her a glass of wine instead of cookies and milk.
  • In Sweden there's tell of a a gnome who travels with the aid of goats to deliver presents. He is small, old, bearded, and wears a red cap, much like Santa Claus. He's derived from the legacy of house gnomes that has filtered through from Scandanavia, and in his holiday form, he's known as Jultomten. The goats he is associated with are derived from the Yule Goats, who visited homes, knocked on the doors and left presents.
  • On January 5th, an old woman--"Babushka," literally meaning grandmother--visits Russian children to leave them presents. The legend associated with her says that she received the wrong directions to Bethlehem, and could not get to Christ in time to give him a present as the Three Kings did. She delivers presents on the 5th in the hopes that one of them will be Jesus and she'll be forgiven. (Note: This particular legend seems to have echoes of La Befana and seems to be relatively unknown to present-day Russians. It's origins may be older and it could be a part of the Babushka stories that have been lost. I am striking it from this collection due to the uncertainty of it's origin. KDC 12/24/2016)
  • Russia also has a legend of Grandfather Frost, who travels with his daughter, Snow Girl. They plan New Year's Eve parties for children where they hand out presents.

There are some interesting observances that arise from these representations of the season that resonate with Mead's advice. All of these characters leave presents or offer some sort of goodwill toward the people they visit, even while they might "know" that not everyone they visit has been "good." Sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote of a moral sensibility that governs the social collective. This sensibility keeps order to permit the continuation of society. In some ways the social order that governs our individual societies is "watching." These holiday representations may be extensions of this moral sensibility by virtue of the power we assign them, which is why they have insights into our behavior and the means to reward behavior that will support the social order.

There's also an interesting discussion to be had here about gender roles and expectations. In the masculine form, the spirit of the season has a heroic, generous quality to him. Saint Nicholas of Myra saves three young girls bound for prostitution. His generosity makes him a benefactor to all. While in the two female forms shared above, there's an element of reconciliation. Generosity exists, but it's marked by remorse. In light of Mead's suggestion, these are also important things to talk about as we try to help children understand the world around them and the representations that exist.

Whether Santa or Saint Nick has a place in your holiday, you'll probably spend this time with friends and family and reaffirm the ties that connect you. So tell us, what does your gift exchange look like?

Happy holidays!

{Edited to add clarity about Jultomten. 12/24/14, 10:00 PM EST.]

Have something to say? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook. Please tell us about your holiday traditions!


You might also enjoy:

How do you stay warm when you're homeless?

Labor Day: It's About Time

What makes theme parks popular vacation destinations?

Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter

Ashes, Yarmulkes, and the Hijab: Communitas and Religious Symbols