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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World

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

Lucas via 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

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

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

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

Wikimedia // Public Domain

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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