To most Americans Santa Claus is the face of the Christmas season popularized most heavily by the poem T’was the Night before Christmas which essentially codified the Santa tradition in the United States. Based heavily off of the earlier European models like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Old Man Winter, and of course St. Nicolas, the poem took these old world variations and developed the jolly old elf we know and love today, complete with his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. Rudolf would have to wait until much later to be introduced into the mythology. But throughout Europe there is a broad range of Christmas characters less familiar to Americans, who reveal the richness of this holiday tradition. Here are eight Christmas characters most Americans don’t know.
1) Yule Lads
In Iceland, 13 mischievous Yule Lads start coming to town one a day beginning thirteen days before Christmas, each one staying for two weeks. They appear to be quite troublesome spirits, partaking in all sorts of impish behavior, robbing, pulling pranks on, and generally harassing the townspeople. Each of the thirteen Yule Lads or Yulemen have rather unique names that express the character of their misdeeds such as Meat-Hook, Window-Peeper, and Sausage-Swiper.
Christkind is the Christ child, or the baby Jesus. While Christmas is commonly celebrated as the birth of Christ, He is typically not thought of as the Christmas gift-giver in the United States. In several Eastern European and Latin American countries this little Jesus comes secretly and leaves presents for the children set up around the Christmas tree. Christkind was popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the overly Catholic symbol of St. Nicolas. He is usually depicted as an angelic child complete with wings. The name Christkind has been suggested as the origin of Kris Cringle, one of Santa Claus’ many names.
3) Knecht Ruprecht
In German folklore the Servant Rupert, is a companion of Sinterklaas. He is depicted as a man with a long beard, dressed in fur, covered in soot, carrying a walking staff and a sack of ashes with jingle-bells hanging from his clothes. He is sometimes in the company of fairies and men with blackened skin dressed as old women. When he arrives, he asks the children if they know how to pray. Those children who can are rewarded with fruits, nuts and cookies. Those children who cannot pray, he beats with his sack of ashes. In the shoes of naughty children he places lumps of coal, rocks, or switches for their parents to use in spanking them.
To Americans witches are associated with Halloween and are the furthest things from our minds during the season of cheer and good will. That’s not the case in Italy where the Befana is the popular symbol of the Christmas season. Befana is an old woman who brings presents to the good Italian children on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany. Instead of a jolly old elf, she is known as a raucous and shameless Witch. Instead of a sleigh, Befana flies through the air on that most traditional instrument of witchy aeronautics, her broom. For the good children she leaves presents and candies in their socks. For the bad children she leaves a lump of coal.
Krampus is a popular Christmas spirit especially around Austria and Hungary. A traveling companion of St. Nicolas, he is charged with punishing the naughty children. He appears as a fearsome beast like a goat dressed in black rags, carrying old heavy chains. Some traditions tell that Krampus is the devil and the chains are representative of his servitude in Hell. At the beginning of December, especially on the night of December 5, men don regalia made from goat-hair, hideously detailed masks with red horns, long tongues and chains. They get drunk and wander the city streets with switches to threaten and frighten the children. Late at night, when St. Nicolas is preparing to visit a house and leave his presents, the children are warned that they must go to sleep and not try to peak out and catch a glimpse of St. Nicolas, otherwise the Krampus might snatch them up and carry them away in his sack.
6) Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is an elfin figure with blackened skin stained from the soot of all the chimneys down which he descends on Christmas. A popular character in Belgium and the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and shows up during the weeks preceding the Feast of St. Nicolas. The Zwarte Pieten entertain children and toss out cookies and candies. The origin of Zwarte Piet is mysterious. One tradition says that Sinterklaas defeated Satan and pressed him into service but, in the 19th century Zwarte Piet was remade to resemble a Moor. Some traditions say that he was a slave named Peter, rescued and liberated by the Sinterklaas, becoming his regular companion. In modern festivals Zwarte Piet is depicted with black skin, red lips, dressed in bright, colorful Renaissance attire. To the good children Zwarte Piet brings presents and candy. For the bad children he carries a bundle of birch branches for their parents to use in punishing them. Especially naughty children face the prospect of Zwarte Piet throwing them in a giant sack and spiriting them away to Spain.
7) Tió de Nadal
The tradition of Tió de Nadal comes out certain regions of Spain such as Catalonia and Aragon. In some ways it bears a striking resemblance to the Yule Log, common in Anglo and Germanic countries. The iconic Tió is a hollowed out log, roughly one foot in length, often with one end painted with a smiling face, set up as a decoration in certain households. Beginning on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and throughout the Christmas season the Log is cared for like an idol. He is treated with offerings of food every night from the Feast until Christmas. At night someone in the house will cover the Log with a quilt to keep him warm. Although similar in theme to the Germanic Yule Log, the Tió differs in a quite profound and rather unique manner. Another name for the Tió de Nadal is Caga tió, or the “pooping log.” On either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day the household sings traditional Christmas songs associated with the Tió while beating him with sticks, encouraging him to poop. When the Tió opens up he “poops” candy, dried fruit, and nuts which everyone share together.
8) Yule Goat
The Scandinavian Santa Claus and is often referred to as the Yule Goat, a tradition native to Northern Europe. Yule is the old Germanic name for the Midwinter festival that became associated with Christmas, on which day the Yule Goat was slaughtered and eaten. Scholars connect this tradition with Thor, the Nordic god of thunder who rode his chariot through the night sky at Yule drawn by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. In countries such as Finland the Yule Goat was a horrid beast that terrified children and could only be pacified with gifts rather than delivering them. In other parts of Scandinavia the Yule Goat was a benevolent spirit who monitored the Yule festivities to assure that the rituals were performed properly. One tradition has a man dressing in the furry costume of the Yule Goat, complete with long horns which was theatrically sacrificed and resurrected to the tune of a traditional Yule song. Modern Yule Goats however, are often ornaments fashioned from straw into the shape of a goat and adorned with red ribbons used to decorate for the Christmas season. Larger than life sized Yule Goats, also made from straw are set up around town and are often the unfortunate targets of hooligans who set them on fire on the days leading up to Christmas.