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Santa, our Arctic colleague

24 December 2012
As December 24 draws near children all over the world wait impatiently for Santa Claus to arrive with their gifts. In the Arctic countries Santa Claus goes by many different names and wears a variety of symbolic costumes. From North America to Russia to Scandinavia, the Santa Claus figure is celebrated in different ways in the regions of the Arctic.

The modern-day Santa Claus has come about by merging pre-Christian folk traditions with the Catholic legend of Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus traditions have become more uniform all over the world since late 1900s, but regional traditions still prevail in much of the Arctic.

From the Yule Goat to 13 Yule Lads

The modern-day Scandinavian Santa Claus originates from the age-old folkloric gift-bearer called the Yule Goat or "Julbocken". By the end of the 19th century the gift-bearer had taken human form and children in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway received their gifts on Christmas eve from "Tomten", "Julemanden" or "Julenissen", who is portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. Traditionally he would come to houses either by foot or by sleigh and was often dressed in furs to keep warm.

In Iceland Santa Claus takes a slightly different form. Instead of one man, there are 13 Yule Lads, or "jólasveinarnir" in Icelandic, that bring children their gifts. The Yule Lads dress in medieval Icelandic clothes and can sometimes be mischievous and leave potatoes instead of candy to children who have behaved badly during the year. They also travel with the Yuletide Cat, a creature which is said to eat children if they haven't received new clothes for Christmas.

Many countries boast that Santa Claus resides within their national borders. In Denmark it is said that he lives in Greenland. In Sweden and Norway it is less clear where Santa Claus actually resides. In Finland on the other hand Santa Claus, called "Joulupukki", has a residence in Northern Finland in a place called Korvatunturi. He also has a workshop in Rovaniemi.

Santa Claus and his red suit

In North America Santa Claus traditions are shaped from very many different cultures. Today Santa Claus is described in North America as a jolly man with a full white beard who wears a red coat and hat with white fur trim, a black belt, and large black boots. This portrayal of Santa Claus became common in the 1930s following drawings by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast.

According to the North American tradition Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and is said to visit all of the children in the world during the night between Christmas eve and Christmas day. Children hang stockings over the fireplace and leave milk and cookies out for Santa. In the morning of Christmas day the cookies and milk are gone and instead there are presents under the Christmas tree and the stockings are filled with treats and small gifts. Children often write letters to Santa Claus with wishes for Christmas gifts. According to the tradition Santa Claus only gives gifts to children who have been good during the past year, and naughty children will receive nothing but a lump of coal.

Father Frost, the master of winter

In Russia, the most popular winter figure is Father Frost. Historically, he is a personification of winter colds and frosts. Father Frost is a tall old man with a long white beard, in a red or blue coat with fur, and felt boots called “valenki”, who comes before New Year and brings gifts to children that he puts under the New Year tree. He has a long wooden stock that he uses to walk through the forest and that can freeze lakes and rivers and make magic. He often comes on a three-horse sleigh, and has many helpers (hares, squirrels and other forest animals who pack the gifts in his house in the forest. Father Frost has a grandchild – the Snow maiden, who follows him when he meets the children in kindergartens or in their homes. Children, sing songs and read poems for him and solve his riddles, and he gives them gifts and sweets. In modern times he got one main residence – a wooden palace in Velikiy Ustyug in Vologda region in Russia, and some minor residences across the country.

The indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia have their own figures that represent the extreme cold and the magic of winter, for example Yamal-Iri from Yamal, and Ehee D'yl from Yakutia. They gain more and more popularity.