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 order to share the various aspects of Santa’s midnight buffet, we’ve looked at 11 areas around the world. Read on to learn more.
Additional reporting by Fabiana Santana.