All countries contain their own, unique folklore. This folklore varies from place to place, often reflecting the country or area’s values. Christmas traditions are especially interesting to read about, since many countries hold this type of celebration in high regard. Whereas the notion of the big, jolly guy in red with his sleigh pulled by 12 reindeer has been engrained in every North American’s head in terms of how we think about Christmas, we tend to forget that there have been countless other iterations of Santa Claus from around the world. Not only that, but many of them are unbelievably strange.
When you step back and think about the idea of a fat man climbing down your chimney to put gifts under your tree, it becomes clear that many of our modern day Christmas traditions are a little weird. But an elf man hiding in your closet? A demon who comes to whip bad children on Christmas eve? A witch who comes to clean your house? There’s much stranger stuff out there…
Listed below are ten crazy origin stories from various countries, all focused on one man: Santa Claus. Enjoy, and try to think about your own understanding of the holiday season. Maybe this list will get you to think outside the box about a popular tradition that’s carried on every year.
This particular version of Santa hails from parts of various countries, including Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Depicted as a child, Christkind sports lush blond hair and a pair of angel wings. In some legends, the child is indeed Jesus as an infant. The angel brings presents to children, but the children cannot see him (similar to other legends). An interesting quirk to the story is the inclusion of a ringing bell. Once Christkind leaves the house, he supposedly rings a bell to signify his departure. The legend was created by Martin Luther, who was trying to get his followers away from the accepted version of Santa Claus at the time. The legend gained traction between the 1500s and 1600s in Europe.
9. The Yule Lads
This Icelandic group of creatures is the first entry on this list that walks that fine line between kind of weird and downright bizarre. It is said that there are thirteen of these creatures (themselves sons of trolls). They are said to visit children thirteen nights in a row, leading up to Christmas Eve. Each night, a different Lad would visit the child and leave presents in their shoes if they were good. And if they were bad? Rotten potatoes. Moreover, these creatures generally harassed people the majority of the year. Their roles in this harassment are bizarre as well, as some of their names translated to what they did. Included is Spoon-Licker, Door-Slammer, and Window-Peeper. You can thank a 1930s poem that became popular in Iceland for this legend’s resurfacing. Up until then, the legend was basically forgotten. Once the poem featuring these Lads became popular, the legend re-entered society and grew from there.
Imagine if a small, three-foot elderly man lived in your barn or a closet in your house. He was constantly watching you, making sure you did good. This is what some Swedish residents propagate during the holiday season. Originating in Sweden, the Tomte is a small, elderly man who helps the family out if they have behaved well. If the family hasn’t been good, the Tomte will play tricks on them. In some extreme stories, the Tomte will even injure or kill the family’s livestock. The Tomte has undergone many variations in Swedish folklore. The creature described above is an older representation of the mythical figure. Nowadays, the small elf-man is generally more jolly. The modern Tomte usually lives in a forest outside of town.
7. Père Noel
This is the French version of the popular Santa Claus we all identify with today. Noel has extremely similar characteristics to Santa Claus, including reindeer, a workshop at the North Pole, and a big red coat. Also similar to today’s Santa, Père Noel brings gifts to children in the middle of the night. The kids leave their shoes underneath the fireplace, hoping to find presents in them the next morning. In these shoes, the children leave carrots for Noel’s Donkey. Most of the presents would be small (small enough to fit inside the shoes). Noel’s beard is another trait that parallels the jolly guy from North American legend.
Popular in certain parts of Germany and Dutch communities in the state of Pennsylvania, Belsnickel isn’t a portrayal of Santa. Rather, he is a companion to jolly old St. Nick. Speaking of jolliness, Belsnickel is anything but jolly. He wears tattered clothes and is sometimes seen wearing an odd mask with a long tongue. He normally arrives at a child’s house one to two weeks before Christmas. His role is to scare the children into behaving better. Belsnickel also carries a switch around, looking to use it any chance he can. With his worn clothes and violent roots, Belsnickel strikes me as a character you never want to meet.
Speaking of companions, the German-oriented Krampus is another bizarre figure in the folklore of Santa Claus. Similar to Belsnickel’s role, Krampus punishes kids who misbehave. However, this is where the similarities end between Krampus and Belsnickel. Where Belsnickel is a man, Krampus is a beast. Literally. He has long, curved horns, sports black or brown fur, and has cloven hooves for feet. He carries chains around, shaking and rattling them to scare the children. He also carries a sack of birch branches that he uses to hit bad children with. He is one mean dude, making sure that kids are nice and that they follow the rules. Krampus even carries a sack (similar to the one Santa has). However, its purpose is more…ominous. If you continue to be bad, Krampus snatches you up and puts you in the sack, whisking you off to Hell. Yeah…pretty intense.
Many countries have strange Santa stories, and Italy is no exception. Italian tradition tells of a woman who rides a broom, much like a witch, that delivers presents to children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). Like other entries listed earlier, the Befana is a companion figure to St. Nicholas. Children still get visits from St. Nick, but can also expect a visit from the old lady on a broom. If the children are bad, the Befana leaves a stick or dark candy inside their stocking. The Befana shares a similarity to the Tomte (#8 on this list) in that she helps out with housework when she visits. She is said to sweep the floors, brushing away all of the family’s problems for the year.
3. Father Christmas
The one entrant on this list most associated with Santa Claus, Father Christmas is almost synonymous with Santa Claus. The two are almost indistinguishable, both being fat men in robes giving presents to children. The legend of Father Christmas tells of a man who is dressed in a green robe (unlike the modern day red suit that Santa Claus wears). Father Christmas bears presents in a large brown sack laid upon his back. He delivers these presents to the kids by dropping down the chimney of a home and laying them under a Christmas tree. Though the characteristics are similar to Santa Claus, Father Christmas is actually the symbol that inspired Santa Claus, Père Noel, and many others around the world. Father Christmas folklore is found in many countries around the world, including Britain, Germany, the U.S. and France.
2. Ded Moroz
Russian-based Ded Moroz is an interesting character to study. At first, he seems similar to Father Christmas and Santa Claus. He wears a big, red robe and has a long white beard. However, that’s where the major similarities end. Ded Moroz is depicted as carrying a magical staff with him. He also has a companion…a woman. It is said in Russian folklore that Moroz’s granddaughter travels with him where ever he goes. She is normally decked out in silver-blue robes and a furry cap. Ded Moroz also is one, if not the only, Christmas figure to make appearances while delivering presents. He appears at New Year’s Eve parties and other related events to hand deliver his presents to children.
Sinterklaas tops this list mainly for the controversial nature of his companion. The Dutch-based Santa Claus always travels with a companion named Black Peter. The depiction of Black Peter may rub some people the wrong way, as the actor or actress portraying him is doused in blackface makeup. For his role in the folklore, Black Peter is a helper. He carries the sack of presents around and assists Sinterklaas in any way possible. Black Peter is normally dressed as a paige from the 17th century. This accentuates his helpful nature. Sinterklaas and Black Peter deliver presents to the good kids and punish the kids who are bad.
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