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.

The Christmas traditions we observe in the United States.

December 24, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to clarify that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I know that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. This post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now called the holiday season to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live far from each other, often in different states; so that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where most people are Roman Catholic, Americans hold no big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts only a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, many desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one day. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2018. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with New Year’s Eve at The Professional Interpreter.