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Christmas around the world: Top carols and how different cultures view Santa Claus

Different versions of ‘Santa Claus’ around the world
Watch: The magical man we know as Santa Claus comes in many different forms around the world. Emily Mertz spoke with the English editor of Babbel Magazine, which provides studies on language and culture.

You might as well call her the queen of Christmas carols. Every year, Mariah Carey’s cover of “All I Want For Christmas is You” tops charts around the world.

“It’s by far the most popular Christmas song that we have,” said Claire Larkin, the English editor at Babbel Magazine.

Most carols have roots in religious hymns. It wasn’t until fairly modern history that secular holiday songs emerged.

“Post World War II, it gets much more — popular culture, it changes a lot, lots more rock and roll influence, fun pop hits,” Larkin said.

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In countries where religion still plays a big role, the most popular Christmas carols tend to be more religious, she explained. In countries like Canada, the U.S. and U.K., secular songs are more popular.

READ MORE: The best and worst holidays songs of all time

“In the German-speaking world, we have ‘Silent Night,’ [which translates to] ‘Stille Nacht Heil’ge Nacht,’ and ‘O Tannenbaum,’ [which translates to] ‘Oh Christmas Tree,'” Larkin said.
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“In Germany, the most popular Christmas songs here — expect for the ones imported from America — are still mostly about religion because Germany is still a Christian state. In America, in Canada, in the U.K., people of course love the idea of Christmas and a lot of people still go to Christmas mass, but it’s not as strongly associated [with religion] and you can love ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ just as much as you love any other hymn.”

While non-English-speaking countries will often create versions of popular carols in their own language, the tune is prioritized over the lyrics, Larkin said.

“‘Vive le Vent’ is long live the wind in France and it has the same tune as ‘Jingle Bells.'”

The figures connected with the holiday also vary depending on geographical location and religious influence.

While the traditional version of Santa Claus, with rosy cheeks, a white beard and red and white outfit is quite widespread, there are different characters around the world.

READ MORE: Where is Santa now? Follow NORAD’s Santa Tracker 2018

“In the Netherlands, we have SinterKlaas and he is a very serious figure. He’s still tied quite closely to the church, even though the Netherlands isn’t a very religious country. He has a big book full of names for children and he comes and he wears a papal — a pope’s hat,” Larkin said.

“Places like Italy, they’re even still a devoutly Christian nation, Santa Claus isn’t as big as Le Befana.

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“She’s this elderly magical woman. She looks quite like a witch, I would say. She’s older and she has clothes covered in soot because she’s also going down chimneys. She’s the one passing out gifts to children. She comes around Epiphany, a few days after Christmas.”

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A common theme woven through all these traditions is gift-giving. Larkin says that’s linked back to Yuletide and practices that came before Christmas even started.

READ MORE: Winter solstice 2018 (nearly) lines up with a full moon and meteor shower – here’s what to know

“The overarching concept of winter solstice is very much tied in to gift-giving,” Larkin explained. “There’s typically either little people or an older man who comes around and gives out gifts. It’s very important during this time of year. It’s very dark, people need encouragement and spending time with their families. This seems to be a very popular thing: giving gifts to children to tell them it’s going to be OK soon even though it’s very dark and very cold.

“In Iceland, they have the Yule Lads and there are 13 Yule Lads who come around with gifts and they pass out different things for the 13 days leading up to Christmas.”

Watch: A travelling troupe has been marauding through towns and villages in Austria over the Christmas period in “Krampuslauf” parades, giving adults and children a chance to get up close and personal with “Krampus.” (Dec. 7, 2017) 

Krampus, Santa’s creepy chum, gives Austrians a scary thrill
Krampus, Santa’s creepy chum, gives Austrians a scary thrill

While these holiday figures are supposed to represent good cheer, they are sometimes political, Larkin said.

“In places like Russia… he’s Father Frost. He looks quite similar to Santa, but he’s wearing big blue robes. He actually comes from the Slavic pagan religion before Christianity was introduced, and he goes along with his granddaughter, passing out gifts to children.

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“Father Frost was imported to a lot of other countries in the USSR,” Larkin explained.

“Some people really took to him and liked him and still celebrate him today, and in other countries, people are very much against Father Frost.

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“They would rather have Santa Claus because they associate Father Frost with a Soviet figure.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s not about their beards. It’s about what’s in their heart’: Inside the world of professional Santas

In North American culture, Santa Claus keeps track of both naughty and nice children and is responsible for doling out presents or coal, accordingly. But that’s not the case in all places.

“In Germany, of course we have Saint Nick… but the anti-Santa, who is Krampus, he comes the day before. He’s a half goat, half demon creature. So instead of Santa giving out coal, Krampus is the one who gives out coal or punishments in general.”

Watch: University of Illinois Dial-A-Carol co-ordinator Jason Bilas joins Global News Morning Calgary with details on how anyone from anywhere can call them to request a holiday tune for free, a 58-year tradition still going strong. (Dec 17, 2018) 

Anyone from anywhere can call Dial-A-Carol to request a holiday tune for free
Anyone from anywhere can call Dial-A-Carol to request a holiday tune for free