9 Holiday Characters From Around the World

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Most American four-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

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

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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

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

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

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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

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

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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

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

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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December 13, 2016 - 4:00pm
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