In America and Canada, he is Santa Claus. In China, he is called Shengdan Laoren. England knows him as Father Christmas. In France, he is Pere Noel. In Brazil and Peru, he’s called Papai Noel. Moroccans know him as Black Peter; Japanese children often call him Santa no ojisan, or “Uncle Santa.” The Finns have their Joulupukki, while in Norway, it is Pa Norsk who arrives on the evening of Dec. 24. And in Germany, children receive presents from Chrstindl, the Christ Child.
The modern Santa Claus is the latest of many figures, both historic and mythic, associated with bringing gifts around the time of the Winter Solstice. “Santa” means saint, and most stories of Santa’s origin include mention of the much-venerated St. Nicholas of Patara, the Bishop of Myra, born near today’s village of Demre in Asia Minor. In the third century, he crept into homes of the poor at night and left gifts in stockings. His feast day is Dec. 6.
Today’s St. Nick is really more of an amalgam of all those characters who have come before him: the Teutonic gods Odin and Thor, the Shaman figures of ancient Europe, the Russian Grandfather Frost, Basil of Caesarea, and St. Nicholas, homogenized and textured by authors, poets, and artists such as Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and Thomas Nast.
Santa Claus, St. Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want to call him, is both gift-giver and disciplinarian, a distraction from the harsher realities of life, and a symbol of the spirit of giving. Author Gerry Bowler wrote of him, "The Christmas gifts he brings are worth far more than their monetary value." As the editor of Harper’s Weekly wrote in 1856: “Love is the moral of Christmas. What are the gifts but the proofs and signs of love?”
Here are 14 tributes to Santa from across history and around the world.
1. Yes Santa, There Was a Virginia
Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971), assistant principal of P.S. 31, poses in New York City on Dec. 12, 1947. O'Hanlon's letter at age 8 to The New York Sun asking, "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?" evoked editor Francis Pharcellus Church — a former American Civil war correspondent — to write the immortal Santa Claus editorial in 1897.
The most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language, it has inspired musicals, made-for-TV movies, animated Christmas TV specials, retail store window displays, annual dramatic readings, the Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship at The Studio School in New York, and the Macy’s/Make-A-Wish Foundation Believe campaign.
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2. Santa’s Pre-Christmas Stop in Monaco
Prince Albert II of Monaco, center, with his wife Princess Charlene and Father Christmas, welcome Monaco's children and prepare to distribute presents for the traditional Christmas tree viewing session at Monaco palace, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. This event takes place every year ahead of Christmas.
3. It’s a South Korean Christmas!
Upper Photo: Kindergarten pupils wearing Santa Claus costumes prepare to release balloons during a campaign to raise money for a charity donation for Christmas in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 26, 2013. Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in South Korea as over half the population is Christian. Moreover, South Korean Buddhists have been celebrating Christmas to show their goodwill toward Christians.
Middle Photo: Penguins dressed in Santa Claus and Christmas tree costumes parade through spectators during a Christmas event at the Everland amusement park in Yongin on Dec. 18, 2013.
Bottom Photo: South Korean postmen dressed as Santa Claus drive away on delivery bikes as they launch an event to visit and give Christmas gifts to neighborhoods at the Central Post Office in Seoul on Dec. 21, 2009.
4. Santa Supports American Military Families
Santa hands out gifts to military families at the USO San Diego and Verizon Wireless Annual Holiday Appreciation Dinner for Navy Service Members on Dec. 17. 2013 in San Diego. At the event, service members celebrated the holidays with a feast, had a meet-and-greet with San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews and San Diego Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin, and received gifts from Santa Claus amidst their preparation for deployment this holiday season.
5. Santa’s Sojourn in India
Although Hindus and Muslims comprise the majority of India’s population, Christmas is a national holiday celebrated with much fanfare.
In the upper photo, a man sells Santa Claus masks on a roadside in Ahmadabad on Dec. 18, 2013.
In the middle photo above, Indian devotees dressed as Santa Claus pray at Triveni Sangam, the "confluence" of three rivers — the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati — on the eve of Christmas festival in Allahabad on Dec. 24, 2011.
In the lower photo, Indian school children pose with Santa during Christmas celebrations at a school in the northern hill town of Shimla on Dec. 9, 2013.
6. The Chinese Santa—Lost in Translation?
In the upper photo, residents take photos of a Santa Claus statue imitating Marilyn Monroe's famous pose outside a department store in Taiyuan in north China's Shanxi province on Dec. 17, 2013.
In the lower photo, a zoo worker dressed up as Santa Claus rides an ostrich at a zoo in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, on Dec. 14, 2008.
7. Santa-Happy Romania
Upper photo: A man wearing a Santa Claus outfit receives help to exit a helicopter at the Romanian Airforce Base 90 in Otopeni, outside Bucharest, on Dec. 17, 2013. Santa arrived on a Puma helicopter and distributed gifts to the children of the Romanian air force personnel.
Lower photo: Romanians crowd downtown Bucharest on Dec. 21, 2008, as they attempt a new entry in the Guinness Book of World Records by gathering 3,959 people dressed as Santa Claus. Other giant Santa gatherings include 14,000 people in Portugal’s city of Porto in 2008 and 12,965 people costumed as Santa or Santa's helpers in Derry City, Northern Ireland in 2007.
8. Land of the Rising Santa
In the photos above, trainers wearing Santa Claus costumes perform with bottle-nose dolphins during a show at the Aqua Stadium aquarium in Tokyo on Dec. 18, 2013. Visitors will be able to enjoy the show until Christmas Day.
9. Santa and His Elves Do Windows Too
Upper photo: A window washing Santa Claus and his elves made the windows of the Randall Children's Hospital extra bright on Dec. 16, 2013, in Portland, Ore.
Lower photo: Phillip Hartlip, 9, a patient at Randall Children's Hospital from Camas, Wash., shares a moment with Santa in Portland. The window washers, employed by Millennium Building Services, have washed the hospital's windows for 22 years.
10. French Santa Mania
Upper photo: Kites in the shape of Santa Claus glide in the wind as part of a kite exhibition held next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on Dec. 17, 2013.
Middle photo: Runners dressed as Santa Claus — and one party-pooper in a Scream mask — take part in the 37th Christmas Corrida Race in the streets of Issy Les Moulineaux on the western outskirts of Paris on Dec. 15, 2013.
Lower photo: Volunteers of the medical students association Carabins, dressed as Santa Claus and elves, distribute gifts to sick children on Christmas Day 2012 at the Bordeaux's Hospital for sick children in southwestern France. (In France, New Year’s Day, not Christmas, is normally for giving presents.)
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11. Submerged Santas
Upper photo: A diver wearing a Santa Claus costume feeds a shark in the aquarium of Palma de Mallorca on Dec. 11, 2013.
Middle photo: A diver dressed as Santa Claus feeds a shark at the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary in Sydney on Dec. 18, 2013. School children along with tourists visited to watch Santa Claus feeding fish at different times of the day in conjunction with Christmas festivities.
Lower photo: Another Santa-costumed diver gestures to visitors as part of upcoming Christmas celebrations at Aquaria KLCC underwater park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Dec. 2, 2013.
12. Santa in the Big Apple
Upper left: Rockettes pose with Santa as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Celebrates “Christmas In August” at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 13, 2013 in New York City.
Upper right: Santa warns a Radio City camel not to upstage him.
Lower photo: Santa Claus and the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade visit the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 27, 2013, in lower Manhattan.
13. Denmark’s Santa Claus World Congress
Upper photo: Santas from all over the world parade on July 22, 2013, in the streets of Copenhagen during the annual Santa Claus World Congress. The Santa Claus World Congress takes place in the world's oldest amusement park, Bakken, which is just north of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital.
Lower photo: A Santa Claus appears in a bumper car during the second day of the annual Santa Claus World Congress on July 23, 2013 in Copenhagen. A team of Danish and foreign Santa Clauses competed in an unconventional Pentathlon at the Bakken amusement park. The foreign teams won with a score of 36–25.
14. Whether Tremendous or Touching, Santa Unites Us All
Above left: Revelers dressed as Santa Claus run during a Marathon in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 14, 2013. Around 6,000 people dressed as Santa Claus and his elves ran a “mini-marathon” through the streets of Madrid to promote festive cheer as the country tries to emerge from a two-year recession. While grown-ups dressed in red costumes with wispy white beards, children donned green elf outfits to run the 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) course through the city center. The race was organized by one of Spain’s leading department stores and it contributed 1 euro ($1.34) for each entrant to a charity that buys Christmas presents for deprived children worldwide.
Above right: A Palestinian girl holds a Santa Claus balloon during a Christmas procession on Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
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