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Bringers of gifts

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Gift-giving is a near-universal part of Christmas celebrations. The concept of a folklore figure who brings gifts to children derives from Saint Nicholas, a good hearted bishop of 4th-century Asia Minor. The Dutch modeled a gift-giving Saint Nicholas around his death on December 5. In North America, other colonists adopted the feast of Sinterklaas brought by the Dutch into their Christmas holiday, and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, or Saint Nick. The Father Christmas name is used widely in the UK, though Santa Claus is just as commonly used, Father Christmas is also used in many West African countries. In the Anglo-American tradition, this jovial fellow arrives on Christmas Eve on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and lands on the roofs of houses. He then climbs down the chimney, leaves gifts for the children, and eats the food they leave for him. He spends the rest of the year making toys and keeping lists on the behavior of the children.

One belief in the United Kingdom and United States which has been passed down the generations, is the idea of "good" and "bad" lists of children. Throughout the year, Santa would add names of children to either the good or bad list depending on their behaviour. When it got closer to Christmastime, parents would use the belief to encourage children to behave well. Those who were on the bad list and whose behaviour did not improve before Christmas were said to receive a booby prize of sorts, such as a piece of coal or a switch with which their parents would hit them, rather than presents.

The French equivalent of Santa, Père Noël, evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image Haddon Sundblom painted for a worldwide Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the 1930s. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In some versions, elves in a toy workshop make the holiday toys, and in some he is married to Mrs. Claus. Many shopping malls in North America and the United Kingdom have a holiday mall Santa Claus whom children can visit to ask for presents.

In many countries, children leave empty containers for Santa to fill with small gifts such as toys, candy, or fruit. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, children hang a Christmas stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, because Santa is said to come down the chimney the night before Christmas to fill them. In other countries, children place their empty shoes out for Santa to fill on the night before Christmas, or for Saint Nicholas on December 5. Gift giving is not restricted to these special gift-bringers, as family members and friends also bestow gifts on each other.

Timing of gifts

In many countries, Saint Nicholas Day remains the principal day for gift giving. In much of Germany, children put shoes out on window sills on the night of December 5, and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. In such places, including the Netherlands, Christmas day remains more a religious holiday. In other countries, including Spain, gifts are brought by the Magi at Epiphany on 6 January. In Poland, Santa Claus (Polish: Święty Mikołaj) gives gifts at two occasions: on the night of 5 December (so that children find them on the morning of 6 December), and on Christmas Eve, 24 December, (when children find gifts that same day). In Russia, Grandfather Frost brings presents on New Years Eve, and these are opened on the same night.

One of the many customs of gift timing is suggested by the song "Twelve Days of Christmas," celebrating an old British tradition of gifts each day from Christmas to Epiphany. In most of the world, Christmas gifts are given at night on Christmas Eve, or in the morning on Christmas Day. Until the recent past, gifts were given in the UK to nonfamily members on Boxing Day.

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