Interpreting during the holidays: Santa Claus in other cultures.

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes when interpreting during the holiday season, getting acquainted with the subject and terminology of the assignment is not enough. Speakers often bring up the holiday spirit and mention phrases, tell stories, share anecdotes, and convey best wishes to their audience. Sometimes, these names, stories, or traditions are unknown to the interpreters because they are not part of their culture, and to prevent those situations, we must incorporate them to our study materials. Often when we begin our research, we recognize the story or tradition, it just goes by a different name, or the characters are slightly different because they have been adapted to the foreign country. Speakers include this “holiday talk” in their speech because their goal is to project a sense of caring, to convey their well wishes. We must do the same in the target language.

As I was interpreting one of these holiday stories involving Santa Claus a few days ago, I thought it would help to compile some names and portrayals of the jolly bearded man in different cultures. It is true that, thanks to Hollywood, Disney, and Coca Cola, everybody knows the American version of Santa Claus as the white bearded guy in a red suit who leaves his home in the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and travels the world in a slay pulled by flying reindeer, enters your home through the chimney, leaves presents for nice kids and coal for the naughty ones, eats the cookies, drinks the milk, and off he goes, laughing out loud, and yelling “Merry Christmas.” Most Americans know nothing about Santa in foreign culture. These are some of the better-known traditions involving a gift-giving character, or characters, sometimes very similar to out Santa, sometimes very different.

Argentina and Peru. Like most Latin American countries, Argentina and Peru have adopted the American Santa Claus in image and deed, but they call him Papá Noel. He brings presents to those kids who behave, and co-exists with the Día de Reyes tradition Latin Americans inherited from Spain. To read more about this tradition, please read under Spain in this post.

China. During the “Holy Birth Festival” (Sheng Dan Jieh) children hang their stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) leaves them a present. In some parts of China, they refer to him as Lan Khoong-Khoong (Nice Old Father).

Chile. Chilean children are visited by el Viejito Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) on Christmas Eve. He leaves presents to those kids well-behaved during the year. The tradition is a mixture of the American Santa Claus, Colonial influence, and Chile’s culture and traditions.

Colombia, Bolivia and Costa Rica. On Christmas Eve, good kids get presents from “El Niño Jesús” (Baby Jesus). The Niño looks like most images of an infant Jesus, but his role is the same as Santa’s: To reward those children who behaved during the year.

Finland. Here, Joulupukki, a nice man, goes door to door delivering presents to all children, but it was not always like that. Before Christianity, there was another character: During the mid-winter festival, Nuuttipukki, a not-so-nice young man, would visit people’s homes demanding food and alcohol, scaring the children when he did not get what he wanted.

France. French children have Père Noël, or Papa Noël (Father Christmas) who wears a long, red cloak, and on Christmas Eve leaves presents in good children’s shoes. Unfortunately, he does not travel alone, he comes with Père Fouettard (the Whipping Father) who spanks those children who misbehaved during the year.

Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On Christmas Eve, Christkind (the Christ Child) visits all homes of Lutheran children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, leaving presents for those who were good during the year. His appearance resembles that of Baby Jesus, with long, blonde, curly hair. Because of the required “angelical look,” this character is often portrayed by females. There is another character in Austria and other Alpine countries: Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure in Alpine traditions who scares bad children during the Christmas season.

Greece. On New Year’s Day, Greek children are visited by Agios Vasilios (Saint Basil) who, in his Greek Orthodox Church tradition of generosity, leaves them presents. Notice how Greek kids know Saint Basil, not Saint Nicholas, as non-Orthodox Christian children do.

Iceland. During the thirteen days before Christmas, Icelandic children are visited by 13 gnomes called Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) who leave candy in good children’s shoes, and rotten potatoes in the shoes of the naughty ones. These gang of 13 trolls do many tricks during those thirteen days, such as stealing food, slamming doors, and peeking through windows.

Italy. Italian kids have to wait until the eve of January 5 when La Befana, a friendly witch comes to their homes on her flying broomstick and leaves toys and candy to the good ones, and coal to those who were naughty. She flies around on January 5 because she is looking for the Three Wise Men to join them to see baby Jesus, as she cannot find Bethlehem on her own.

Japan. On New Year’s Eve, Japanese children good during the year get presents from Hoteiosho, a jolly fat Buddhist Monk who has eyes in the back of his head to see those kids who were naughty. Because of the big American influence over Japanese culture in the last half a century, Japanese added their version of the American Santa Claus to their festivities. His Japanese name is Santa Kurohsu, and he is part of this acquired celebration in a non-Christian country with no turkeys, where the Christmas tradition is to have KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), which Japanese simply call “Kentucky” for Christmas dinner, and they often confuse Santa Claus with the image of Colonel Sanders.

Mexico. Mexican kids are neighbors to the United States and as such, they observe the same traditions as American children. They are visited by Santa Claus who looks exactly as the American version, lives in the North Pole, and has the same reindeer. He even gets inside Mexican homes through the chimney, although most Mexican homes do not have a fireplace. Maybe for this reason, Mexican Santa leaves the presents under the Christmas Tree instead of the stockings hanging from the fireplace. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexican children are also visited by the “Reyes Magos” from the Spanish tradition.

The Netherlands. The Dutch name for the Christmas visitor is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and if you recognize the name, it is because the American Santa Claus took his name from this Dutch Bishop, the patron saint of children and sailors, who arrives from Spain by boat on December 5 every year, and makes his way to the homes of Dutch children to leave them a present. The Sinterklaas tradition was taken to the United States by Dutch sailors, and in recent times the American Santa Claus has entered Dutch culture as Kerstman (Christmas Man) so well-behaved kids in The Netherlands now get two presents from two different characters who started as one.

Norway. On Christmas (Jul) a mischievous gnome with a long beard and a red hat named Julenissen visits the children and plays pranks and leaves presents. He is said to be the protector of all superstitious farmers. A similar character exists in Sweden and Denmark, where he’s known as Jultomte and Julemand, respectively. In Sweden, an adult man wearing a mask goes to kids’ homes and asks: “are there any good children who live here?” before distributing his sack of presents.

Russia and Ukraine. Children in these countries are visited on New Year’s Day by a tall, slender character dressed in blue who arrives in a wagon pulled by horses and goes by the name of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He now gives presents to good children, and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snegurochka, but he was not always that nice. A descendant of Morozko, a Pagan Ice Demon, long ago, he used to freeze his enemies and kidnap children, but that is all in the past.

Spain. On the eve of January 6, children in Spain (and most Latin American countries) expect a visit from the Reyes Magos (the Wise Men) Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, who will visit their home on the date when they got to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus, and leave presents by the shoes of those nice kids who wrote them a letter. That night, before they go to sleep, children leave sweets for the Reyes Magos and hay for the camels they ride on.

United Kingdom. British kids’ Father Christmas, and American children’s Santa Claus may be almost the same, but they have a different origin. While Santa Claus comes from a Dutch tradition (see The Netherlands in this post), Father Christmas results from a merger of a Germanic-Saxon character: King Frost, and a Viking tradition: Odin, the Norse father of all gods who had a long white beard and distributed presents and privileges among those who deserved them in his judgement. Father Christmas, born from those two characters, brings presents to nice children all over the United Kingdom on Christmas eve.

I hope this list will help you prepare for your assignments during the holiday season, just in case, somebody brings up one of these characters when you are in the booth, or at this time, working remotely. I also invite you to share with us other countries’ traditions around Santa-like characters, or to give more details about the characters mentioned in this post. I wish you all a restful holiday season, and a healthy, plentiful, and in-person New Year.

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