Good Old Saint Nick

By Kristen Castillo

October 29, 2015 4 min read

He's merry. He knows if you've been good or bad. And he's a great gift-giver. So who is this jolly fellow? Santa, you say? That's correct -- for many people, anyway.

Still, the guy we know as Santa Claus is known by lots of other names around the globe.

"There are many names for Santa Claus because he comes in different forms," says Santa expert Dr. Frank Riga, professor emeritus of English at Canisius College, noting Santa is a gift-giver in each country.

"The most popular is Santa Claus because he is the Americanized version," he says. "Santa Claus is worldwide. China even has a series of different Santa Clauses."

*Saint Nicholas

The story starts with an actual saint. According to the St. Nicholas Center, St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop from Myra (a town in present-day Turkey), dedicated his life to helping the sick and needy, as well as children. The anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, became a day of celebration. Many countries still celebrate St. Nicholas on that day.

Over time, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, "San Nicolaas," was mispronounced as "Sinter Klaas." Soon the name became Santa Claus.

As St. Nicholas Center explains, Santa and Saint Nicholas can be partners, with St. Nicholas helping people understand who Santa is. "St. Nicholas comes in early December; Santa comes later," they say. "There is no need to deny one or the other."


The Santa most of us recognize is the American version, complete with a big belly, white beard, a jolly laugh and that red suit!

The Santa story became popular thanks to New York writer Washington Irving's depiction in "Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York," which explained how St. Nicholas came to the New World "equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit."

Fast forward to 1822 when Dr. Clement Moore wrote a Christmas poem for his children, called "A Visit From St. Nicholas." The poem detailed Santa's sleigh, eight reindeer and the iconic red furry suit.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew his version of Santa based on his reading of Moore's poem, combined with his love for the German version of Santa, known as Pelznickel -- "Furry Nicholas." Those drawings were published in Harper's Weekly in 1862 and the modern Santa we now know emerged.

*Other Names

German children know Santa as Kriss Kringle, Father Christmas and Christmas Man. In the country of Georgia, Santa is Grandfather Frost; in Lithuania, he's Old Man Christmas; in France, he's Pere Noel; and in Russia, he's called Babushka.

In Austria, while Saint Nicholas takes care of the good kids on Christmas, naughty kids in that country can expect punishment from Krampus, a demonic goat-like beast.

*La Befana

In Italy, there's a Santa figure known as Babbo Natale, or "Father Christmas." But the giver of gifts is La Befana, "an old and ugly creature whose legendary existence is commemorated and re-enacted each year throughout Italy in a wide variety of parades, ceremonies and especially in giving gifts to children," says Dr. Riga.

La Befana gives those gifts on the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, which is the Feast of the Three Kings. "Like Santa Claus, she knows which children have been naughty or nice, and while good children receive sweets and toys, the wayward find only cinders and ashes," says Dr. Riga.

*Three Kings

"In Latin countries, the main gift giving is celebrated with the Epiphany (Jan. 6) and the Three Kings deliver the gifts," says Dr. Riga. "Some Latin countries, however, have also adopted Santa Claus."

In those countries, the Latin Santa is called Papa Noel.

No matter what name you call Santa, make sure you've been a good boy or girl. You don't want to end up on the naughty list!

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