In the United States, the Christmas season starts the moment after Thanksgiving dinner ends, with bellies full of turkey and sinks full of dishes.
Storefronts light up, Christmas music begins playing on the radio, and kids begin working on their Christmas lists. Other countries might not be quite as Christmas crazy, but it is a holiday beloved by different people all over the world. One tradition that people usually think of only days before the big day is leaving treats out for Santa Claus on his tiring trek around the globe. Cookies and milk are traditional for America, but the rest of the world has many variations on offerings to keep Santa energized throughout the long night ahead of him.
The ritual of leaving out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa — and sometimes carrots for Santa’s reindeer — has become routine in the U.S. How did this get started? One theory contends that the concept is adapted from the original use for Christmas stockings, which were traditionally filled with treats for Santa. Families still hang stockings, but now they are filled with goodies for the family, while Santa gets a separate plate of milk and cookies.
Another version of the story says that during the Depression, parents used Christmas as a time to teach their kids to share what they had, no matter how little, with others; leaving snacks out for Santa and his reindeer was part of that lesson.
Still another story links Santa’s snacks to Norse mythology. People would leave treats out for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, in the hopes the god would take the gift as an offering and visit their homes during his Yule hunting adventures. The ritual was passed down later to Dutch children, who would leave treats out for Sinterklaas and his horse. That tradition is still honored in the Netherlands today.
Every Christmas Eve, children spoil Father Christmas’ horse with water, hay, and carrots. In exchange, they often receive marzipan, chocolate coins, and hot cocoa. The French fancy spoiling the animals, too, sometimes leaving Père Noël to fend for himself.
In Argentina, children generally don’t receive presents until Three Kings Day on January 6, a day honoring the three Magi who visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The night before, kids leave their shoes outside their homes’ front doors to be filled with gifts. They also leave hay and water out for the Magi’s horses for energy on the long journey.
In Australia, it’s customary to leave Santa a cold beer. Cookies might also be offered, as well as carrots for the reindeer, but the beer is often the number one priority.
In Chile, Viejo Pascuero, or Old Man Christmas, is left a pan de Pascua prepared by children. Pan de Pascua translates to Easter Bread, but it is a traditional Christmas treat of sponge cake flavored with candied fruit, ginger, and honey. After a dessert of the sweet treat in the evening, family members exchange gifts, and kids leave some sponge cake for Santa in hopes he will leave something for them.
In Denmark, Father Christmas and his mischievous elves, or nisser, who take up shop in the attic of homes to keep an eye on things, expect to find a bowl of Christmas rice pudding waiting for them on Christmas Eve. The pudding, called risengrød, is made with sugar, cinnamon, and milk, and it’s also part of Christmas Eve dinner. Forget to leave it out, and Santa and the nisser may play some cheeky tricks.
Père Noël, as Santa is called in France, receives biscuits when he enters the home. Kids also leave out carrots for the reindeer, usually putting the food in their shoes and awakening on Christmas morning to find them stuffed with trinkets, toys, and treats.
German children leave out something more personal than snacks for Christkind, or Santa’s nickname in Germany. They write letters to Father Christmas, and some even decorate their letters with glue and sugar crystals so they sparkle in the night. In the morning, they awake to find the letters have been replaced with gifts.
Check out more fun Santa traditions from around the world.
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