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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World

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RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Most American 4-year-olds can tell you all about beloved holiday characters like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. But in other countries, talking about Rudolph and his ilk might earn you little more than a blank stare. Here's a look at some holiday characters who might not be familiar to Americans, but who play a big role in celebrations around the world.

1. KRAMPUS

Postcard of Krampus chasing a child.

This terrifying horned monster is part of the Christmas tradition in Austria and other surrounding countries. If children are good, Saint Nicholas brings them toys. If they're bad, though, they've got to face Krampus's wrath. The clawed, hairy beast is said to punish naughty children by stealing their toys, smacking them with a birch rod, and even tying them in a sack and chucking them into a river. Krampus is also a prominent presence on Krampusnacht (December 5), when young men outfit themselves in elaborate costumes and masks and terrorize the neighborhood, sometimes even beating bystanders. Getting a lump of coal in your stocking doesn't seem like such a terrible fate in comparison, does it?

2. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In parts of Germany and in some Pennsylvania Dutch communities, children get visits from the somewhat less intimidating Belsnickel instead of Krampus. Belsnickel, a man covered head-to-toe in dark furs, sneaks a sock or shoe full of candy into children's rooms. Like Krampus, though, Belsnickel will put his foot down; if the children have been naughty, they'll wake up to a shoe full of coal or switches. In the 19th century, men would sometimes dress up as Belsnickel and go prowling around the city, a practice known as "Belsnicking," but these days Belsnickel has been largely forgotten in favor of St. Nick.

3. PERE FOUETTARD

St. Nicholas and Pere Fouettard
Etienne Mahler, Flickr // Public Domain

Pere Fouettard is another of Saint Nicholas' enforcers, this time in Eastern France. This bearded, black-robed character carries either a whip or a rod, and while St. Nick hands out toys to the good children, Pere Fouettard is said to beat the naughty ones. Even though he may not be as visually terrifying as Krampus, some origin stories for Pere Fouettard ("Father Whipper") are pretty grisly. He's said to be an evil butcher who murdered three boys, a crime St. Nicholas discovered before resurrecting the youngsters and shaming Pere Fouettard into working for him forever to atone for his sins.

4. GRYLA

The Icelandic ogre Gryla.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Naughty children in Iceland have to fear being caught by Gryla, an ogress who lives in a mountain cave but comes out each year to plague bad kids during Christmas. During the 18th century, Gryla was such a terrifying figure—her mythology at the time included eating bad children, not just scaring them—that a public decree banned the use of Gryla to strike terror in the hearts of the poorly behaved. She is also the mother of the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous characters with names like "Door Slammer" and "Sausage Swiper" (and habits to match).

5. DED MOROZ

Postcard of Ded Moroz.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost") is the Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus, but he acts just a bit differently from the St. Nick that Americans are used to. He does wear a long red fur coat and fur-trimmed hat, but Ded Moroz also carries a magical staff, and instead of sneaking down chimneys to deposit gifts before disappearing into the night, he actually shows up at New Year's parties to give kids their gifts. He’s also accompanied everywhere by his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.

Ded Moroz had a tough time in the Soviet Union. After the Russian Revolution, he didn't come at all for a few years due to a ban on Christmas-like New Year's traditions. Joseph Stalin reversed the ban in 1935, but he ordered that Ded Moroz wear a blue coat so that no one would confuse him with the Western Santa Claus.

6. LA BEFANA

A La Befana doll.
Simone Zucchelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Children in Italy don't have to worry about Santa, but they definitely want to remain on Befana's good side. On the night of January 5 each year (Epiphany), Italian kids wake up with the hope that Befana, a shawl-wearing old lady who rides a broomstick, will have come down their chimneys to leave a sock full of candy rather than a lump of coal. Sometimes, she's also known for sweeping the floor before she leaves.

7. OLENTZERO

An Olentzero figure sitting on a balcony.
RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

In Basque communities, Olentzero comes to town on Christmas Eve to deliver children's holiday gifts. Although Olentzero—an overweight man who wears a beret, smokes a pipe, and dresses like a Basque farmer—is now a beloved character who comes bearing gifts, he used to have some more violent aspects to his personality. Originally, he went around town with his sickle cutting the throats of people who ate too much on Christmas Eve.

8. JÓLAKÖTTURINN, THE CHRISTMAS CAT

Jólakötturinn, the Christmas cat.
carlabits, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND 2.0

Unlike most of the other characters on this list, Jólakötturinn doesn’t care if you’ve been bad or good—this cat only cares if you’re properly dressed. According to Icelandic tradition, the towering, bloodthirsty feline, who lives with Gryla and the Yule Lads, eats people who don’t get new clothes before Christmas. That ties in to another Icelandic tradition, in which those who have finished all their work for the year get new clothes before the holiday. In the end, the fashion-conscious cat is just another way of motivating kids (and sometimes adults) to behave, lest they be eaten by a giant feline.

9. TIO DE NADAL

A Tio De Nadal log.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tio de Nadal is a Catalan character that's also known as "Caga tio," or "pooping log." Starting with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, Catalan families host a tio, which is a small hollow log propped up on two legs with a smiling face painted on one end. Each night the family gives the log a few morsels of food to "eat" and a blanket so it will "stay warm" throughout the evening.

On Christmas or Christmas Eve, the family then orders the hollow log to "defecate" small gifts. Family members sing songs and hit the log with sticks in order to speed its "digestion," and the log gradually drops candies, nuts, and dried fruits that the family shares. When a head of garlic or an onion falls out of the log, all of the treats are finished for the year.

A version of this article originally appeared in 2009.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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