Whether he’s coming to town, double-checking his list, or kissing your mom, that rotund, rosy-cheeked gift bearer is probably Santa Claus to you. But around the world, he goes by many different names. Here are 20 happy handles for that mythical sled flier and other Santa-like figures.
1., 2., and 3. Kris Kringle, Christkind, and Weihnachtsmann
Kris Kringle is primarily a U.S. name for Santa, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In 1919, American journalist H. L. Mencken described it as an “example of debased German” and identified the term as coming from Christkindlein—a word that actually refers to “the baby in the manger,” noting that Kris Kringle is “quite unknown in Germany.”
Christkindlein or Christkind refers to another holiday gift-giver in some German-speaking countries. According to Dictionary.com, Christkind originated in the 1500s as a Protestant option to the Catholic Saint Nicholas. Nowadays, this angelic figure is depicted as “a crowned woman in white and gold who drops gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve.” Yet another Santa Claus figure in Germany is Weihnachtsmann, which literally translates as “Christmas Man.”
4. St. Nicholas
While St. Nicholas may seem synonymous with Santa Claus, the original Catholic saint was a far cry from the jolly, bowl-full-of-jelly fellow we know today. Born in Greece in the late 3rd century, he became a bishop in what is now Turkey with “a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine,” according to National Geographic. Thanks to his generosity and interests while he was alive, he became the patron saint of children, prisoners, and sailors after his death. By the 1200s, the St. Nicholas Center explains, St. Nicholas’s image had evolved in some parts of the world “from a rather severe figure to the compassionate children’s friend, giving gifts on St. Nicholas Day,” or December 6. It wasn’t long before those views permeated wider culture.
Dutch settlers likely brought the idea of a snowy gift giver to New York (then known as New Amsterdam) during colonial times. Sinterklaas is an abbreviated version of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas (Sint Nikolaas), and according to the OED, “The Dutch custom of giving gifts to children on [St. Nicholas’s Day] gave rise to the cult of Santa Claus.”
So how did St. Nick go from fiery and wiry to plump and playful? This was thanks to several 19th-century individuals who worked to transform the rowdy, boozy holiday that Christmas was back then to the family-oriented one we know now. This group included writers like Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore (“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” otherwise known as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”) and political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who first created Santa’s jolly image.
6. Father Christmas
Chiefly used in British English, according to the OED, the term Father Christmas began as a personification of the holiday, with its earliest citation from 1646: “Honest Crier, I know thou knewest old Father Christmas.” Now Father Christmas is used interchangeably with Santa Claus.
7., 8., 9., 10., and 11. Pere Noël, Papa Noël, Babbo Noël, Papai Noël, and Noël Baba
Several countries also go the Father Christmas route. In France and Spain, Santa Claus is Père and Papa Noël, respectively. Tots in France may also call Santa Papa Noël, which translates as “Daddy Christmas” (then there’s Zaddy Christmas, but that's another story). It’s Papai Noel in Portuguese, Noel Baba in Turkish, and Babbo Natale in Italian.
12. La Befana
Before Babbo Natale in Italy, there was a much older granter of goodies. La Befana, who has been around since the 700s, is a grandmother type believed to fly about on a broom, “giving treats to good children and coal to the bad,” according to Dictionary.com. She gets the job done on Epiphany on January 6, rather than December 25.
Brought over in the 1700s by German settlers, Belsnickel is a Santa-Claus-like figure in parts of Pennsylvania. Someone dressed as Belsnickel may go about on Christmas or New Year “to play pranks or beg for small gifts or refreshments,” according to the OED. In German folklore, he “visits children before Christmas to reward good ones with gifts and punish naughty ones.”
As for where the name comes from, it’s believed to be a borrowing from both Pennsylvania German and German. One theory says it comes from pelz, “fur,” and Nickel, a pet form of Nicholas. Another says the first syllable comes from pelzen, meaning to beat or wallop.
14. and 15. Julbock and Jultomten
In Scandinavian countries like Sweden, the julbock or Yule Goat was thought of as a kind of spirit of Christmas that would appear “to make sure that the holiday preparations were done correctly,” according to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Eventually the goat “took on the role of a gift giver and is sometimes seen in place of or alongside Santa, who is called Jultomten.”
Jultomten began as something similar to gnomes or brownies, who were believed to protect children and animals and help with household chores; eventually, however, the figure evolved into a white-bearded man wearing a white cap. As Phyllis Siefker notes in Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, the figure is seen by some experts to be “a blending of the old land sprite with the now popular Father Christmas and Santa Claus figures.”
But there are key differences: While Jultomten has a sleigh, it doesn’t fly—it’s instead pulled by the Julbock. Jultomten also eschews the chimney and delivers presents via the front door instead. And rather than cookies and milk, a kind of buttery porridge called julegrøt is left out to thank him.
16. and 17. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
Russia’s winter gift giver, Ded Moroz (“Father Ice” or “Grandfather Frost”), is like the Saruman of Santas. According to TIME, he’s “slender with a wizard-like flowing beard” and “wears a long robe that comes in different colors, such as blue and white.” Instead of elves, he’s assisted by his granddaughter—known as Snegurochka or “Snow Maiden”—and has three horses instead of eight reindeer to power his sleigh.
18. Santa Haraboji
In South Korea, Santa Claus is known as Santa Haraboji or Grandpa Santa. Instead of red he wears blue or green robes, and sometimes dons a tall traditional Korean hat called a gat.
19. and 20. Santa-san and Hotei
While the Western Santa Claus may be referred to as Santa-san in Japan, the country also has its own portly present pusher. Hotei or Hoteiosho is a divine Buddhist figure who’s sometimes referred to as the Laughing Buddha. However, he’s not an incarnation of Buddha at all but may be based on a real 10th-century Chinese monk named Budai.
He’s often depicted holding a sack (his name in kanji, one of Japan’s writing systems, means “cloth sack”) with a trail of happy children following him. According to Japan Today, what exactly is in Hotei’s sack varies by legend: It could be “anything from modest clothing to a rice plant to the entire collected woes of the world.” But regardless, it’s believed Hotei “brought fortune and joy to everyone he encountered thanks to his magic bag.” It’s also thought he had eyes in the back of his head, the better to see if you’ve been naughty or nice.