9 Holiday Characters From Around the World

RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
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.

In 1938, The New York Times Thought Cheeseburgers Were a Weird New Fad

iStock
iStock

People love to make fun of The New York Times's trend section: Their umpteen pieces on the Millennial craze have been called "hate-reads," and their dissection of cultural norms such as oversharing, defriending people in real life, and chopped salad at lunch as "trends" can be hilarious and infuriatingly obvious.

But while their pieces aren't always exactly timely, they will certainly make for interesting reads in a few decades—just like this throwback piece on a California fad called "cheeseburgers" from 1938.

When "cheeseburger" was first mentioned in the October 1938 article, it was in a long list about the "whimsy" of California eateries. Then, nine years later in May 1947, the Times revisited the fad, writing, "At first, the combination of beef with cheese and tomatoes, which sometimes are used, may seem bizarre." Fortunately, their intrepid reporter could see the bigger picture. "If you reflect a bit, you’ll understand the combination is sound gastronomically."

Now, 80 years after the paper with all the news that's fit to print took notice of the trend, you can not only ask for gourmet cheeses like brie, goat, or gorgonzola on your burger—or spend upwards of $300 on one—there are multiple burger chains where you can order stacks on stacks on stacks of cheeseburger patties.

That weird little West Coast fad has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and cheeseburgers are practically our national food (arguably in hot contention with apple pie) with their very own holiday: National Cheeseburger Day (which is today). Congratulations, America! We did it!

Amazon Will Deliver a 7-Foot Christmas Tree to Your Door This Holiday Season

iStock
iStock

We're still technically in the dregs of summer, but Amazon is already thinking about Christmas. The online retail giant has just announced it will be giving customers the chance to skip the annual trip to the Christmas tree farm this holiday season and order live trees online instead, the Associated Press reports.

Amazon has previously sold live Christmas trees that topped out around three feet, with larger trees available on the site through third-party vendors. This year the company is establishing itself as a major player in the real Christmas tree market. Beginning in November, Amazon shoppers will have their choice of buying Balsam firs, Black Hills spruces, or Norfolk Island pines directly from the company. The tallest offering, a seven-foot Fraser fir, will sell for $115.

All of Amazon's trees will be wrapped up and delivered within 10 days of being chopped down, which should mean they'll still be alive upon arrival. As is the case with other Amazon products, the trees will be shipped in cardboard boxes. Some will even be eligible for free, two-day shipping for Amazon Prime members—just in case you're the kind of person who decorates their home for the holidays at the very last minute. And if you're someone who likes to get all of that holiday shopping out of the way early, Amazon will also offer pre-orders.

As for the possibility that independent Christmas tree farms will be the next industry brought down by online retail, tree farmers aren't worried. The National Christmas Tree Association told the AP that it estimates only about one to two percent of all live trees purchased for the holidays last year were ordered online.

[h/t AP]

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