As illustrated in the well-know poem “Twas the Night before Christmas,” the story of Santa Claus warms the hearts of children around the world – or so we thought. The story explained in the famous poem is actually one of many versions which seem to vary from country to country. The following are a few examples of different Santa-like entities, their helpers, as well as some of their counterparts:
Sinterklaas (Netherlands/Belgium): Sinterklaas may look like the North American Santa that we’ve all come to know and love – but he is not. Sinterklass is not from the North Pole and he does not preside over elves. It is from Spain where he sets off in a steamboat to Amsterdam. Guided by the careful navigation of his Zwate Piet (his “helpers,”) he set off from Spain and reaches the port of Amsterdam by the end of November. This is a nationally televised event, watched by people all over the country. He is a serious man with long white hair and beard who carries a golden staff and wears a red cape, ruby ring, as well as a red mitre (a hat generally associated with the pope). Upon his arrival, he docks his boat and hops on a white horse accompanied by two to five Zwate Piet. Their jobs vary from co-pilot to chimney climbers. He visits hospitals, schools, shopping centres and homes. The evening of his arrival, children leave there shoes near the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse. Cookies and traditional almond pastries are left for Sinterklaas himself. In the morning, the good little boys and girls are bestowed with presents and candy, the bad children receive coal and the threat of being kidnapped back to Spain with Sinterklaas and his crew.
(images courtesy of dullhunk and hotfield)
Krampus (Austria/Slovenia/Italy): In the Alpine regions of Europe, Krampus acts as an anti-Santa of sorts. Generally, the creature is fur-laden from head to toe, bearing long horns atop a gruesome, sometime blood stained face. On December 5th of each year, young men dress up as Krampus and take to the streets, on the prowl for bad boys and girls. For those who are naughty during the year, they are beaten with long sticks; anyone in the street is fair game. In recent years, the practice has become controversial as the beatings are sometime considered brutal.
La Befana (Italy): On January 5th, the people of Italy celebrate Epiphany, a feast commemorating the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. As legend dictates, on the night before Jesus’ birth, La Befana gave the Magi (or the Three Wise Men) a place to stay and a hot meal as they continued their journey to see the baby Jesus. It is said that she was an exceptional hostess, always keeping her house spotless. The morning after, the Magi invited her to come see the Lord, but she declined as she had more housework to do. After they left, La Befana had a change of heart and set off in search of the infant. Unfortunately, she was unable to find Him or the Magi, and to this day she searches for the baby Jesus, leaving toys, candy and fruit for the good children along her path. Garlic and onions are left for those who were naughty during the year. Today, La Befana is a national icon. Take your car rental in Italy to the Epiphany celebrations where people dress up as her and entertain children by juggling and dancing in the streets. A story of a similar woman is told in Russia by the name of Babushka (or grandmother.)
Gryla (Iceland): The arrival of the giant, Gryla has been a time-honoured tradition in Iceland for hundreds of years. It is said that she descends from her mountain home during the Christmas season to seek out naughty children to put in her stew. She is always accompanied by her sons, referred to as the Yuletide Lads. The lads begin to show up on December 12th with the arrival of the first son, Stekkjarstaur, who steals milk from farmers’ sheep. On each day until the 24th, a new brother appears; some are known to peep through windows, others slam doors, steal food or toys. The story was not associated with Christmas until the 17th century, which subsequently had lead to an outright ban on using the story to scare children. Despite the ban, which has since been lifted, the people of Iceland keep the story alive by dressing up as Gryla and her children every year around Christmas.