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.

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

iStock.com/bycostello
iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

10 Gaelic Loanwords to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

iStock.com/bortonia
iStock.com/bortonia

It's said that everyone gets to be a bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. In that case, it's only fair that everyone has a few words of Irish Gaelic origin ready for the occasion. Irish Gaelic is a living language of the Celtic family, and today, there are an estimated 1.3 million habitual fluent speakers in the Republic of Ireland alone.

Centuries ago, the Old Irish language dominated Ireland as well as the Isle of Man and roughly half of Scotland. Since the Middle Ages, Gaelic languages have endured gradual reduction from encroaching English—clinging to the fringes of the British Isles and developing into separate Gaelic languages, of which Irish Gaelic is just one. Irish may have been on the road to extinction, but in the 1800s, an Irish literary revival began to inspire Irish inhabitants to cherish their language and care about its future. After Irish independence in the 1920s, laws were enacted to preserve daily use and teach the language to future generations of Irish citizens.

On account of conquest, commerce, and immigration over hundreds of years, the English and Irish languages have mingled together and intertwined. From all this contact, a set of curious and often cheeky vocabulary has found its way into the English vernacular. The list below, spanning from the firmly grounded to the loftiest of the poetic, will enliven any type of St. Paddy's Day revelry.

1. Brogue

Irish shoe pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

Derived from the Gaelic word for shoe, this noun in English today has two meanings. The first, used to describe a fashion of perforated leather shoes, recalls the style employed by Gaels to allow water to drain out of their shoes while traversing soggy bogs. The second, slang for an Irish or Scottish accent, is assumedly derived from the former.

2. Hooligan

Irish green beer pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

A term for a participant in rowdy, raucous behavior, this term derives from the Gaelic surname Ó hUallacháin (anglicized as O'Houlihan). Though the exact reason is unknown, one doesn't need to delve too deeply into Irish stereotype to imagine how a surname could become shorthand for such mischief.

3. Banshee

Irish shamrock pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

This mythical female spirit is an omen of death in Irish folklore. To "howl like a Banshee" is to induce the same legendary spine-tingling terror. Banshee is a compound which correlates to the modern Irish for woman (bean) and fairy (sídh).

4. Gob

Irish green beer pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

The common English term gobble derives from this noun meaning "mouth," or literally, "beak." In Ireland, the term gobshite remains a common (though impolite) term for someone who talks a lot of nonsense.

5. Galore

Claddagh pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

When typical quantity-descriptors just don't quite cut it, the Irish phrase go leor literally translates as "to sufficiency." Ceart go leor remains a common response in modern Irish meaning "alright" or "good enough."

6. Slew

Irish leprechaun hat pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

Irish is not shortchanged of ways to describe plenty. This one comes from the Irish sluagh, meaning "a large crowd," often used in reference to armies. If even that doesn't suffice, add an augmentative prefix for mórshlua, a multitude or great host.

7. Slogan

Irish pot of gold pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

Sluagh injects itself into English yet again with this term, deriving from sluagh-ghairm, the battle-cry of an amassed army. The first English attestment of its modern usage dates back to 1704.

8. Smithereens

Irish celtic cross pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

As in "blasted into smithereens," the root-word "smithers" may have been loaned from English. However, the original smidiríní carries a classically Irish diminutive suffix. If the original root-word was in fact English, this term has thus traveled full-circle.

9. Smidgen

Irish pipe pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

Possibly related to smithereens, we take this term from the Gaelic smidean/smitch, or "a very small amount." A phrase more commonly heard at a bar than on a battlefield.

10. Whiskey (or Whisky)

barrel pattern
iStock.com/bortonia

The word for this beloved drink is derived from uisce beatha, which translates literally as "the water of life." With such pure poetic cheer, it's no wonder St. Paddy's Day has such universal appeal.

This story was originally published in 2015.

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