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European Versions of Santa Claus

Nov 16th, 2023

The end of the year brings about a host of holidays, religious celebrations and traditions depending on where in the world you are. If you find yourself in Europe in December, for example, you may find that Christmas is celebrated slightly differently in different regions and localities. 

Santa Claus also looks different to different people! Below you’ll find a handful of Santa Claus versions from various countries around Europe and, of course, the traditions that accompany them!

9 different Santa Clauses from European countries

Saint Nicholas


Saint Nicholas is where our modern-day Santa Claus story begins, and the coolest part is that he was based on a real person! 

Saint Nicholas is a legendary European folklore figure based on real-life Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop who lived in 1st century Turkey and who was known for his gift-giving. He became the patron saint for a variety of peoples, including sailors, archers, merchants, children, thieves, brewers, students, unmarried peoples and pawnbrokers — he was such an impressive and beloved figure, in fact, that he is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas Day (usually the 5th or 6th of December) in the Advent season. 

The folklore character based on Nicholas of Myra is also named Saint Nicholas, though this legendary figure visits homes on Saint Nicholas Day to leave gifts for good children and lumps of coal or twigs for bad ones. He is often depicted wearing a red cloak and hat and sports a dashing long white beard. 

If this sounds familiar, then you’d be right! Our Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, as are many of the other figures on this list. Most of the countries that celebrate some version of Saint Nicholas Day will have a figure based on Saint Nicholas and some other local traditional character, hence the similarities between all these holiday figures! 

Los Reyes Magos


Los Reyes Magos, or the “Three Wise Men”, is the Spanish name for the Magi, who are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew as visiting the Christ Child shortly after his birth. They are said to have come from the East, following a star, to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

In Spanish tradition, Los Reyes Magos are the ones who bring presents to children on Christmas Eve, rather than Santa Claus. On January 5th, the night before the feast of the Epiphany, children leave out their shoes filled with hay and straw for Los Reyes Magos' camels. They also write letters to Los Reyes Magos asking for the presents they want. 

Père Noël


Père Noël (“Father Christmas”) is the French version of our Santa Claus, exhibiting many of the same characteristics as our jolly, red-clad Christmas figure. Rather than reindeer accompanying him, Père Noël is joined by a donkey named Gui who helps him deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. 

Sankt Nikolaus


There are several regional variations of Santa Claus across Germany, each with its own backstory and religious significance. 

Saint Nikolaus brings gifts and treats to children on the night of December 5th, the night of the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas. On Christmas Eve, though, other characters like Weihnachtsmann or Christkindl leave gifts under a decorated tree called a Tannenbaum. 



Sinterklass is the Netherlands’ version of Santa Claus and, in essence, is pretty similar to the one we know. Actually, his name is where we get the name “Santa Claus”, so he was around first! 

Though not quite as jolly as ol’ Santa, the tall, slender character has a long white beard and wears a red bishop's robe and a mitre, in reference to Saint Nicholas, of course. He’s accompanied by his trusty helper Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete” who dresses in Renaissance attire and gives out candy to children. In more recent years, though, Zwarte Piet has been reimagined as “Sooty Pete” whose dark appearance is due to the chimney soot picked up from climbing up and down chimneys.  

Babbo Natale


The Italian version of Santa Claus is Babbo Natale — a jolly old man with a long white beard wearing a red suit and hat. He travels on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivers presents to good children on Christmas Eve.

Babbo Natale is based on a number of different figures, including Saint Nicholas and the Italian folk figure of La Befana — an old woman who is said to deliver presents to children on the Epiphany (January 6th) and is often depicted flying on a broomstick and carrying a sack of toys. 

Both Saint Nicholas and La Befana are represented in this now-modern figure Babbo Natale, who embodies the kindness, generosity and joy of these beloved Italian figures. 

Julenisse & Jultomten 

Norway, Denmark & Sweden 

Norway, Denmark and Sweden have very similar versions of Santa Claus, all of which are based on Scandinavian folklore characters called “nisse” or “tomte”. These characters are small, mischievous creatures that live on farms and in homes, and they are often depicted as wearing red hats and coats and are said to protect the people and animals they live with.

Julenisse or Juletomten, the holiday-specific nisse and tomte, is a short, plump figure with a long white beard and a red hat and cloak — not unlike our very own Santa Claus! And, just like our Santa, he carries a bag of toys to give out to children on Christmas Eve.

He is said to live in the mountains of Norway, but he travels to every house in the country on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children. To fuel his long journey through Scandinavia, many children leave out a bowl of rice porridge with sugar and cinnamon for Julenisse on Christmas Eve to give him energy. Sound familiar?



The Finnish version of Santa Claus is called Joulupukki, which literally means "Christmas goat".

Ded Moroz 


The Russian version of Santa Claus is called Ded Moroz, which literally means "Grandfather Frost". He is a tall, slender figure with a long white beard and wears a long blue or white robe, and he is often accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka (meaning “Snow Maiden”).

Ded Moroz has a long history dating back to Slavic pagan times where he was originally seen as a harsh winter deity. Eventually, though, his image softened over time and he became more associated with gift-giving and good cheer.

In the Soviet era, Ded Moroz-related symbolism was initially banned by the communist authorities, since he was seen as a religious symbol. However, he was later revived and became a popular figure in Soviet culture, representing the spirit of the New Year and the joy of winter.

Today, Ded Moroz is still the most popular gift-giver in Russia and the New Year is the main winter holiday. Children leave out their shoes for Ded Moroz to fill with presents on New Year's Eve, and many families decorate a fir tree called a Yolka and celebrate the holidays with a feast.

Keep an eye out for these versions of Santa Claus this year, especially if you get the chance to experience some holiday markets or cultural festivals! There’s so much backstory and history behind all of these characters, so dive in and get to know them and their traditions a little more if you can!


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Couleur

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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