The American version of Santa—fat and cheery and headed down the chimney with toys—is becoming popular throughout Europe. But most countries also have their own beloved Christmas characters who have been part of holiday celebrations for centuries. Some, like Saint Nicholas and Father Frost, bear a strong resemblance to the man in red. Others, like the gossamer-winged Christkindl, the horned Krampus monster, and the ogress Gryla, will give you an entirely different way to celebrate the holidays.
A scatalogical cross between a yule log and a piñata, the Caga Tió reigns as the supreme Chirstmas figure in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. Also known as the Tió de Nadal, this log (which often has a face painted on it and a red hat set on its "head") is said to poop out presents for good little kids on Christmas morning. Children start fattening up the pooping Yule log on December 8th, feeding him sweets and covering him with a blanket to keep him warm, and finally beating him with a stick on Christmas day while singing carols ordering him to “poop good”.
A Giant Turned Peasant
Elsewhere in Northern Spain, Christmas is celebrated by the arrival of a more human-looking figure called Olentzero in Basque Country and Apalpador in Galicia. This character was originally part of pagan winter traditions, which held him to be a Jentilak, one of an ancient race of Basque giants who would punish glutinous villagers. These days, however, Olentzero is portrayed as a poor man who was abandoned at birth and raised by a fairy and given eternal life after saving children from a fire. This kinder (man-sized) Olentzero brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve, when his likeness is paraded through the streets.
The Three Kings
While the pooping log and Olentzero are specific to particular regions of Spain, the Three Wise Men, or Three Kings, are welcomed as gift bringers across the Iberian Peninsula, in both Spain and Portugal. In Spain it’s believed that Melchior represents Europe, Caspar represents Asia and Balthazar represents Africa. In the days leading up to Epiphany (January 6) kids can hand deliver their letters to the king of their choice in shopping malls. On January 5th, kids leave a drink for the kings and food for the camels, then wake up the next morning to small presents in their shoes and bigger gifts beside them. In both Spain and Portugal, people eat a traditional Kings’ Cake that usually has a bean and a small toy or king figurine hidden inside it. The person that gets the bean has to buy the following year’s cake, and the person who gets the toy gets to wear the paper crown.
Saint Nicholas—perhaps the Christmas season’s most famous saint and the basis for most versions of Santa Claus—brings gifts to kids in Holland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany on December 6th. Tall and slim and dressed as a bishop, Saint Nicholas visits each house and fills children’s shoes with gifts and sweets. (He often has mischievous companions, responsible for taking care of the bad children. See below.)
In Norway and Sweden, Santa Lucia is the focus of the holiday season. On December 13th, young women dress up as the saint in white gowns, red sashes, and crowns of burning candles and carry palm fronds, cookies, and rolls in processions, singing songs about surviving the long dark winter ahead with plenty of light. According to Swedish legend, Lucia (who is usually pictured as young and blonde, like many Swedish girls) was Adam’s first wife. Saint Lucia is also celebrated in northern Italy, Sicily, Calabria, and on the coast of Croatia, but in these places the holiday is marked by a large family meal.
In Greece, Saint Basil replaces Saint Nicholas as the gift-bringer. Traditionally he leaves kids presents on January 1st, but in recent years, the saint has been replaced (in some families, at least) by a Saint Basil-esque Santa character who shows up on the 24th and 25th. Regardless of which tradition people follow, everyone eats a Saint Basil cake with a coin inside it on New Year’s Day to pay tribute to the saint who was born wealthy and gave his riches to the poor.
In some countries, a malevolent helper accompanies the Christmas gift-bringer. In Austria and Bavaria, the horned, hoofed, and hairy Krampus monster comes down from the mountains on December 5th to punish misbehaving children. Krampus cuts an ugly figure. His tongue lolls out of his mouth, long and pointy, and in some places he carries chains said to symbolize the binding of the devil by the church. He usually appears armed with a whip or birch branches to swat kids and a sack or tub strapped to his back to haul the really bad children off to his lair for further punishment. Despite his scary appearance, the character is quite popular: Young men sometimes dress up and participate in Krampus runs, and the figure is featured on greeting cards. The character also makes an appearance in Slovenia, where he is known as Parkelij.
In Germany, France, and the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas has a human helper to do the dirty work of punishing the naughty. In Germany, he’s a farmhand called Knecht Rupert, and in France the character is known as Le Père Fouettard—literally, the father whipper. In the Netherlands and Flanders, there is a similar (if more controversial) character, Black Pete, a Moor who accompanies Saint Nicholas on his trip to Holland from Spain. Black Pete is usually portrayed at holiday events by a white person in black face, which is one of the many reasons that the character has become controversial and is starting to fall out of favor.
In Russia and much of the former Soviet Bloc, kids receive winter visits from Father Frost on New Year's Day. Called Ded Moroz in Russian, he wears a heel-length fur coat of red, blue, silver or gold, a semi-round fur hat, and traditional felt boots. He has a long white beard and a magical staff and rides a horse-drawn sleigh called a troika. He’s accompanied by his granddaughter and helper, the beautiful snow-maiden Snergurochka, who wears long silvery robes and a furry hat or snowflake-shaped crown. Despite the fact that the Soviets originally banned images of Father Frost (due to worries that the character was a symbol of bourgeois western influence with religious connotations), Russia later exported Father Frost to the rest of the Soviet Bloc countries.
In Russia and other Slavic countries, kids also hear about Baba Yaga, a haggard old witch who tries to steal children’s holiday gifts and is the enemy of Father Frost and the Snow Maiden. Baba Yaga has iron teeth and a long hooked nose and spends her days flying around in a mortar, paddling the air with a pestle, and hanging out in her hut, which walks around the forest on chicken legs.
Italy has an equally haggard—but much friendlier—old woman, La Befana, who delivers presents to well-behaved kids on the eve of Epiphany (January 5th). La Befana rides a broomstick that she uses to clean up the ash she scatters when she drops into houses through their chimneys. She stuffs good kids' stockings full of candy and presents and gives bad kids coal, garlic, or a stick. And even if she hasn’t made a mess coming in, La Befana always sweeps the floor before she goes, symbolically sweeping away the problems of the year before. Most Italians leave her a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food. But beware, if she catches you sneaking a peek at her, she’ll thump you with her broomstick before she leaves.
Christkind, which translates as "Christ child," was originally promoted as a holiday figure by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation in order to discourage the popular figure of Saint Nicholas. Sometimes called Christkindl, the child is usually portrayed as spritely and almost feminine—blonde and cherubic with wings. While Christkind is supposed to be the incarnation of the baby Jesus, the child is often portrayed by girls and young women at Christmas Markets and other events. Christkind is the traditional gift-bringer in much of Central Europe and delivers gifts on the 24th of December. In Steyr, Austria, a wax statue of Christkind stands in the town church, and the post office answers mountains of letters that children send to the figure. In Austria and parts of Germany it is traditional for kids to wait outside the living room on Christmas Eve; a bell rings to tell them when they can enter to see the decorated tree and the presents that the Christkind has delivered.
In Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, a Christmas gnome or elf brings kids holiday gifts. Called a tomte (in Sweden) or a nisse (in Norway and Denmark), this gnome is portrayed as a tiny man, no bigger than three feet tall, with a long white beard, a belted woolen tunic, a conical red hat, and a pet pig. He lives in houses and barns, guarding the home, family, and animals from evil and misfortune. But if he feels insulted, he will plays tricks, steal from the family, and even harm livestock. Traditionally, the tomte brings gifts to the door, and people leave him a bowl of porridge with butter to show their gratitude. In Denmark, he’s often seen without a beard, dressed in red and grey. Norwegians believe he has four fingers, pointed ears, and eyes that reflect light in the dark like a cat's. He’s very strong and despises disrespectful behavior and laziness. In Finland there is a similar character called the Yule goat, which was originally an animal (as its name suggests) but now looks like the same gnome found in neighboring countries.
Icelandic Traditions: Ogres, Yule Lads, and Cats
Across the Atlantic, in Iceland, people celebrate a unique cadre of holiday creatures. According to local tradition, Gryla, a terrible ogress, and her 13 sons, the Yule Lads, come down from the mountain at Christmastime. Gryla is in search of naughty children to boil, and her precocious young trolls are in search of ways to make mischief. But Gryla can only get her paws on naughty kids and can only keep them if they’re unrepentant; kids who realize the error of their ways are allowed to escape.
Every evening of the 13 nights of Christmas, from December 23rd to epiphany, Icelandic kids leave a shoe on their bedroom window, and one of the yuletide lads fills it with sweets and small gifts, if the child has been good, or rotting vegetables, if the child has been bad. Icelandic kids and adults also look out for the Christmas cat—enormous and black, it prowls the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who doesn’t receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas, no matter their age.
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