Over centuries, if not longer, the number of various legends and Christmas legends associated with them have grown across the globe.
For example, there is a tradition for children in Italy to be given gifts by an older woman by the name of ‘Befana’ on January the 5th, or Epiphany Eve. North American culture has the same kind of notion of gift-giving for primarily children, which takes place on December 25th and is carried out by Santa Claus himself.
The beauty of Christmas traditions lies in the diverse tales and legends related to this festival and, of course, with the gift-givers that are ever so deeply intertwined with this global celebration. This alone would likely be one of the main reason as to why Christmas is such a diverse, unique and ubiquitous festival, celebrated by billions of people around the world.
Legend states that a few days before the birth of Jesus Christ, Three Wise Men, also known as the Magi, knocked on the doors of Befana while she was sweeping the floors. They claimed that they had seen a bright star in the sky and asked for directions to get to the 'Son of God'. She did not know the route, though was kind enough to offer them refuge for the night. The Magi pleaded with her to come with them in their search for Baby Jesus, but she refused them on account of the bad weather.
After they had left her home the next morning and she realized that the baby was the Redeemer that all the world had been waiting for, her regret was so great that she continues to wander about Italy and at the Epiphany (January 6, or when the Wise Men finally found the Child Jesus), she begins rewarding good children and disappointing those who were bad. In popular folklore, Befana presents children with delicious candies and presents if they have been good. On the contrary, if the children have been mischievous during the year, their stockings and socks are found filled with lumps of coal. She is generally portrayed as a shady woman riding a broomstick and wearing a black shawl, believed to be covered in soot because of travelling down the chimney and carries a black sack with gifts, candy and coal.
Belsnickel is the first character in the history of Christmas characters who clearly distinguished between good children and bad children.
Belsnickel would mainly leave switches for children who were bad through the year and would also leave small toys, socks, mittens, candies or fruits for the well-behaved children he came across. On the Eve of Christmas, just before everybody would go to bed, Belsnickel would announce his arrival by knocking on the windowpanes or doors. unlike Santa Claus who travels down the chimney while the children are asleep, the children actually get to see Belsnickel. With a black bag in one hand, and a mask covering his face, Belsnickel was considered more of a Robin Hood type of character during 'Christmas' and had an eerie, 'superhero’ or ‘bad guy’ quality to him.
There are, of course, scarier versions of the Belsnickel as well. Legend has it that he used to drag naughty children into the forest and make them pay for their mischievous behavior through the year. Other stories suggest that he used to kidnap naughty children from their beds and never returned them to their parents. However, Belsnickel would often give them a chance to redeem themselves if they wished to do so. This would be done through trivial manners such as asking them to dance, sing or recite poems.
The story of Belsnickel is enough to bring about a lot of fear within some children. It would be no surprise that his presence in most households next to disappeared after the introduction of merrier Christmas characters, such as Santa Claus. Nowadays, the story of Belsnickel is recited or even depicted in parts of Germany to wreak some Christmas havoc for good humor and to scare naughty children more so than have them look forward to receiving some fresh fruits or other small treats on Christmas Eve.
Christkind, believed to be a young, blonde child with angelic wings, is often depicted as the incarnation of Jesus Christ in infant form. Parts of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic believed in this version of Christkind for a long time until another depiction was developed. It is also believed that in some processions, the depiction of Christkind was rooted to the theory of an Alsatian-born child bringing gifts to Jesus Christ rather than Christ himself.
Unlike many other Christmas characters, Christkind has never been seen in person. It is believed that Christkind always brings gifts for children in secret due to the popular belief that Christkind might not bring them presents if they tried to look for him. Families get together in the living room on Christmas morning and believe that Christkind left presents for them under the Christmas tree. In some parts of Germany and Austria, it is also believed that the departure of Christkind from a person's house is announced by the ringing of a small bell.
'Sinterklaas' or Saint Nicholas is believed to have lived from 271 to 343 AD. He was also the Bishop of Myra in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Known to be a legendary patron of kindness, generosity and love, this figure was adopted by many groups of people as a saint. Not sure if it’d actually qualify as all that ‘saintly’ in modern times but legend has it that much of Saint Nicholas’ good deeds included helping poor, single girls get married by offering to arrange for their dowries. Hence why it is said that Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas left presents and money in the shoes of these poor girls.
Sinterklaas is believed to live in Spain most of the time (unlike Santa Claus, who dwells in the North Pole), watching over children and keeping tabs on who is being naughty and who is being nice. In the beginning of November, he calls upon his trusted helper, Black Pete, to pick up all the gifts and load them all into one big sack. Once this is done, Sinterklaas and Black Pete would travel on Sinterklaas' stallion, often called Schimmel or Amerigo, and head towards the towns of Netherlands.
Every year, a different port or town welcomes Sinterklaas and the people indulge in massive celebrations and colorful parades. Unlike Santa Claus who climbs down chimneys and leaves Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, Sinterklaas arrives around mid-November, marking the beginning of the 'Sinterklaas season' and continues to stay with the local, town-folk till the 5th of December. This stay is then followed by the 'Sinterklaas Feast Day' on December 6.
With respect to traditional customs, children leave their shoes filled with hay by the fireplace every night till the 5th of December, hoping to receive presents from Sinterklaas at night. The hay in the shoes is said to be required to feed his stallion after a tiring journey. On the 5th morning, children find fancy gifts in their shoes with small additions like sweets, dolls, or even just humorous stories. All to spread the good cheer of the festival. This is then followed by a grand feast.
Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas travels around towns and cities on his stallion, in broad daylight, meeting different people.
Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat)
Unlike most of the other characters on this list, Jólakötturinn doesn’t care if you’ve been bad or good. Instead, 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' (more like make, but I digress) new clothes before Christmas. This ties in to another Icelandic tradition, in which those who have finished all their work for the year get new clothes before the holiday.
The threat of being eaten by Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and would in turn be preyed upon by the monstrous cat.
In the end, the fashion-conscious cat has come to be just another way of motivating kids (and sometimes adults) to behave, lest they be eaten by a giant feline.
Krampus was a seven foot tall, horned demon who accompanied Saint Nicholas in Alpine countries such as Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. According to the legends, Krampus travelled alongside Saint Nicholas and whipped or spanked bad children, which was in complete contrast to the good-natured Saint, who distributed gifts. If he found a particularly impish child, younger children were led to believe that he would drag and stuff them in his bag to have him/her as dinner. The character is represented as a beastly creature with a wild goat-like head and demonic disposition.
Krampusnacht is a festival which is associated with Kramppus and is celebrated on the Eve of St. Nicholas day. In countries like Syria, the tradition of Kramppus is carried out by young men who take it as an opportunity to harass women with rusty chains, cowbells and home-made whips. This is commonly seen in night clubs. In United States, though this tradition is illegal, people practice it but in good spirits.
Arguably the most well-known and popular Christmas figure, Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa, originated in Western Christian culture. He is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on Christmas Eve and the early morning hours of Christmas Day.
The modern Santa Claus emerged out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas, the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas). Some maintain that Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as being a portly, joyous, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, topped off with a red hat with a white fur trim. All while carrying a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This very image has since been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children's books, films, as well as advertising.
Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior ("good" and "bad", or "naughty" and "nice") and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaved children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh.
Anyhow, I thought it would bee interesting to throw together a list of some of the more popular characters associated with Christmas time. Especially after having chatted with some friends and found out how, even within my own relatively small social circle, everyone can celebrate the same event in very different ways. I think it's truly a beautiful thing to see how so many people, from all walks of life, different religions and cultures, can come together to celebrate the same holiday(s) in union.
If you and your family celebrate Christmas in a similar or different way, please feel free to share below. :)