The strange worldwide phenomenon of Santa Claus grew from pagan roots but took its own course in almost every country where there are local customs. The image of the fat man with a beard in a red suit is all too familiar to everyone with love for the winter holidays, but what happens when Santa has competition?
So far, we can all agree that Serbia is the land of variety when it comes to the holiday customs. Despite the communist government established in 20th century, all those customs somehow found a way to survive. The communist gang in charge didn't like St. Nicholas, usually referred to as Santa Claus in pop culture, so they popularized their own version of a charitable fellow called Christmas Brother a.k.a. Božić Bata. He wasn’t made up from thin air, originally, he was created in the 19th century and only after a few generations he already became a mainstream part of the holidays and a new mythological persona in the region.
Although he is referred to as a “brother”, the strange name has a completely different etymology; Božić Bata comes from the idea of Božić, a small God, coming in and clattering his legs on the floor to shake the snow off (“bata po podu”), but this was interpreted differently by the children unknowing what bata as a verb means, so nowadays he is just a Christmas brother who brings them presents.
Although both Santa and Božić Bata bring a sack full of knick-knacks, Božić Bata wears a dark leather cap and there is no red suit to the found. The presents they bring are also not the same; while Santa is known to promote the latest toys and to bring a big bundle for every, Božić Bata brings small presents like Christmas ornaments, nuts and oranges, socks, and gloves. Santa is also known to sneak around (and eat all the cookies!) while the household is sleeping while Božić Bata makes a public entrance (which makes photo ops much easier nowadays) and gives the presents to the children in person on Christmas eve. Both mythological characters are usually played by the oldest man in the family or a close neighbor, but each family adds their own little detail to the widely practiced custom.
Despite having two mythological beings with this mission, gift giving during Christmas is not a particularly Serbian tradition; instead, gifts are exchanged on the three Sundays before Christmas Day. Children give gifts on Detinjci, married women on Materice, and married men on Oci. However, it is not a typical gift exchange they have - the morning of each Sunday the person who is supposed to give the gift is kidnapped by their family. For example, children are tied up on Detinjci and held for ransom until they give the gifts to their parents and they get untied. The same is done to married women and men (usually it is the children who tie up their parents) on Materice and Oci. From all these holidays, the day dedicated to the women is most festive and celebrated often even among those who don’t celebrate the other Sundays.
Presumably one of the main reasons people love the holidays are the gifts to bring cheer and joy to everyone in times where people are snowed in with nothing to do in particular. Today a lot of families go all out for Christmas, so it comes as no surprise that Santa Claus was adopted into the mainstream customs alongside Božić Bata and the oldest tradition of three gift-giving Sundays.