When families in the U.S. celebrate Christmas, it’s Santa Claus, a jolly portly old man with a white beard and a sack of toys, who brings the holiday cheer.The Santa Claus we know and love originates in the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, who is in turn based on St. Nicholas, the Christian patron saint of children. There are other interesting riffs on this theme. Here are just a few of our favorites.
St. Mikulas, Czech Republic
The Czechs get the Santa portion of their folklore over early in the month. The Baby Jesus makes an appearance later in December on Christmas Eve. On December 5, St. Mikulas makes his rounds accompanied by an angel and a devil. He interviews children as to whether they’ve been naughty or nice, with his sidekicks acting as “good cop/bad cop,” entertaining young families and scaring their kids before dropping off gifts. Typically, high school and college students dress up and wander around the Old Town Square in Prague, available for hire.
The Three Kings, Spain
In Spain, they get a bit more traditional. I mean, they go way back for inspiration. As part of the story of the first Christmas, most people know that three kings/Magi followed the North Star to visit Christ and deliver gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. The three kings deliver gifts of toys and candy to children during parades in towns and cities around Spain on January 6 each year.
La Befana, Italy
You might be a little surprised or creeped out to hear that the Italians celebrate the visitation of La Befana, a kindly old witch/crone who delivers candy and presents to good kids and a lump of coal or dark-colored candy to the misbehavers. La Befana, takes a page out of Santa’s playbook, and delivers her treats via stockings. La Befana is known to be a tidy old broad, so she often sweeps the floors before she departs your humble abode. See? Kinda cool, a little creepy.
Yule Lads, Iceland
Iceland is the one country on our list who seems to have the most fun pestering and playing tricks on children. Who cares about figuring out whether they’ve been conducting themselves well throughout the year! In fact, the Yule Lads are 13 trickster elves (12 elves plus their mom who’ll kidnap you if you’ve been really incorrigible), who take turns harassing kids on the 12 days leading up to the holiday. Children leave shoes on the windowsill in hopes of collecting small treats or toys. And if you’ve been naughty, look out for the rotten potatoes they’ll put in your shoes!
Père Noël and Père Fouettard, France
Pere Noel is simply “Father Christmas” in English, and his purview is all of the typical Santa stuff – though he does usually appear more svelte, and wears a cloak rather than a jolly suit. He also delivers his treats to children via the shoes they leave next to the hearth. His traveling companion, on the other hand, is Pere Fouttard, or “the whipping father.” He comes along to dole out spankings to bad kids as they go.
In Germany, Santa simply blows right by the bad kids’ houses. He leaves them in the horrifying hands of a scary devil named Krampus. Krampus is half-devil and half-goat, with twisting horns on his head. He’s traditionally played by a young man. Krampus shows up in parades all around the country and in other regions of Central Europe. Krampus delivers coal to misbehaving children, as is traditional everywhere. You’ll want to offer him some schnapps for his trouble.
Tio de Nadal. Catalonia, Spain
Lest you think this list isn’t going to get a little crazy, may we present to you, Tio de Nadal, the Yule Log. Now the Yule log is a fairly common Christmas fixture. What they do with it in Catalonia is next-level silly. See, the Tio de Nadal is expected to be cared for by children in the days leading up to Christmas. Kids are instructed to “feed” it nuts and berries while it sits under the tree and keep it warm with a blanket. On Christmas Eve, kids take turn hitting it with sticks and singing a rather explicit song about bodily functions. On Christmas morning, if all goes according to plan, the Tio “poops” out presents. We’ll just leave it at that.
Joulupukki, the Yule Goat, Finland
Finland likes to do things a little uniquely, and Christmas is no different. In Finland, Joulupukki, the Yule Goat brings children presents. Legend has it that Joulupulli was a man who turned into a goat and in his modern incarnation, he sometimes appears as a very “Santa-looking” goat indeed. He even shows up with reindeer and a lot of Finns now enjoy celebrating Rudolph as well!
For a look at another amazing Christmas tradition – the markets across Europe and the U.S., check out this post.