Santa Claus

16 More Weird Christmas Traditions by Chris Hall

Burning the Devil in Guatemala....

Christmas can be a weird holiday....  I love it.  We’ve already covered the bizarre history of Saint Nicholas, investigated into Santa’s pagan origins and some of Santa’s weirder contemporaries, and we’ve explored some of his devilish companions and personal assistants.  We’ve also learned about Catalonia’s Caga Tio and El Caganer traditions and about Japan’s Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas tradition.  But this only the tip of the iceberg that is weird Christmas.  Here are 16 more weird Christmas traditions from around the world.  Merry Christmas everyone!




1.  South Africa – On Christmas Day many people will enjoy eating the deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor Moths….

2.  Norway – Here you must hide your broom on Christmas Eve lest it be stolen by a witch or evil spirit.

3.  Venezuela – In Caracas it is a tradition to go to Christmas Mass on roller skates.

4.  Greenland – Be sure to eat try one of these traditional Christmas dishes… Mattak:  raw whale skin served with blubber.  Kiviak:  500 dead auk birds stuffed inside a seal skin and left to ferment for seven months.

5.  Germany – Here it is a tradition to hide a pickle inside the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.  The first child to discover it in the morning will receive a small gift.

6.  Ukraine – The Christmas trees are not hung with tinsel and ornaments, but with a fake Christmas Spider and spider’s webs.

7.  Czech Republic – When a lady stands by a door and throws a shoe over their shoulder, and if the shoe toe is pointing toward them, then the lady will be married in the coming year.

8.   Estonia – It is a tradition in Estonia for families to go to the sauna together on Christmas.

9.  Wales – Small villages will perform a Mari Lwyd ritual on Christmas Eve where a lucky villager is chosen to parade through town with the skull of a mare hoisted on the end of a long stick.

Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem

Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem

10.  Guatemala – Here it is a tradition to sweep out the house before Christmas.  Each neighborhood will create a big pile of dirt and place an effigy of a devil on top, which is then burnt.

11.  Greece – A race of evil goblins called the kallikantzaroi are said to leave their underground dwellings and wreak havoc over the twelve days leading up to Christmas.

12.  Slovakia – The most senior man of the house will take a spoonful of loksa pudding and throw it at the ceiling.  The more that sticks the better.

13.  Finland – Here it is a tradition to honor the dead by lighting candles and leaving them in the grave yards.

14.  Austria – In Gresten people will dress up as Krampus, and parade around town hoping to scare children.

USA Running of the Santas.jpg

15.  USA – Some cities will enact a Running of the Santas, where groups of people dressed as Santa Claus will make a boozy bar crawl.

South Africa Danny Ghost.jpg

16.  South Africa – It is a tradition to tell the story of Danny, who upset his grandmother by eating the cookies left out for Santa Claus.  The grandmother becomes so upset that she kills Danny.  Danny is said to haunt homes on Christmas.

Christmas in Japan by Chris Hall

Despite the fact that less than 1% of the population are Christian, Christmas has become quite popular in Japan.  Christmas trees are placed in the home, corporations like to decorate public places with Christmas lights, and people exchange Christmas cards and gifts.  The Christmas celebrations are secular rather than religious, and it becomes an excuse to share happiness and good cheer.  Among young couples, Christmas Eve is celebrated as a kind of Valentine's Day.  Gifts are exchanged and it is often hard to book in fancy restaurants.   Christmas Day is celebrated by everyone, however.  Due to a successful advertising campaign in the 1970's, it has become a Christmas Day tradition to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken (although another fast food chicken joint will do in a pinch).  You have to make reservations months in advance for this.  If you can't make reservations to dine in, you can at least call ahead and make reservations to pick up.  Colonel Sander is kind of a popular culture cult figure in Japan.  Statues of him decorate almost all Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.  Often the owners will decorate their Colonel Sanders statue in costumes reflecting holidays and special events.

Saint Nicholas' Companions by Chris Hall

With tongue lolling out, Krampus thirsts for the blood of bad children.

Saint Nicholas’ companions are all closely related, as they all come the Germanic speaking territories of the former Holy Roman Empire.  These characters act as a foil to Saint Nicholas and his role as benevolent gift giver, as they typically threaten to thrash, beat, or abduct those on Saint Nicholas’ naughty list.  This is the story of Zwarte Piet, Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Belsnickel, and Le Pere  Fouettard.

Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (plural Zwarte Pieten) translates as Black Pete.  Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and is usually portrayed by a man in blackface and a black curly wig, while dressed like a 17th century page boy.  Zwarte Piet is said to be a Moor from Spain (the Moors from North Africa ruled most of Spain from 711 CE until the fall of Granada in 1492).  Typically, Zwarte Piet is shown carrying a large sack full of candy and gifts which he distributes to the good children on Sinterklaas behalf, but he is also shown with a birch rod or a chimney sweep’s broom made from willow branches which he uses to beat those on Sinterklaas’ naughty list.  Some legends have it that Zwarte Piet will also threaten to put the bad children into a sack and carry them back to Spain for the purpose of enslavement.  Historically, the Moors, in fact, had raided the European coasts, as far north as Iceland, to abduct the local people and put them into slavery.  

Zwarte Piet’s popularity has only grown over the years.  Not content with only one Zwarte Piet, now Sinterklaas is in command of a whole army of Zwarte Pieten.  Now he has a Zwarte Piet for every occasion.  There the head Piet, a navigation Piet (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet both arrive from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat), a packing Piet (to pack all the gifts), an acrobat Piet (to climb up the roofs and down the chimneys), and many others.  Today Zwarte Piet has become controversial and is considered by some to be racist.  In order to whitewash the blackface, so to speak, some are now claiming that Zwarte Piet’s face is really blackened with soot, as he does have to climb through chimneys to deliver gifts.  Strangely enough, in a 2013 survey, 92% of Dutch did not perceive Zwarte Piet as being racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the character’s appearance, citing the importance of tradition.  In regards to tradition, the Zwarte Piet character is a relatively new invention when compared to Sinterklaas, as Zwarte Piet only dates back to the early 19th century.   I should also be noted, that just because something is a tradition, it doesn’t mean it is always worth saving.  

Saint Nicholas arrives with Knecht Ruprecht.

Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand or Servant Rupert) is a companion of Saint Nicholas and first appears in this capacity in German folklore in the 17th century.  Knecht Ruprecht originally had no connection with Christmas time and he is thought to date back to the pre-Christian pagan era as a spirit who helped out with the chores around the farm and around the house.  With the introduction of Christianity, such spirits were then transformed into devils.  Ruprecht is a common name for the devil in Germany.  According to some stories, Knecht Ruprecht began as a farmhand, in others he is a wild child whom Saint Nicholas adopts and raises as his own.  Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp because of a childhood injury.  In appearance, Knecht Ruprecht typically carries a long staff and a bag of ashes.  He also wears little bells on his clothing.  Sometime he rides on a white horse and is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.

 According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether or not they can pray.  If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread.  If they cannot, they receive a beating with his bag of ashes.  Knecht Ruprech shares the tradition of approaching strangers unusual questions or challenges with the Belsnickel, and origin of the tradition is thought to date back to when Odin, in disguise, would perform similar acts around Yule time.  In the German version of the television show “The Simpsons,” the family dog is named Knecht Ruprecht instead of Santa’s Little Helper.  

Several Krampus Devils with a Saint Nicholas and a Knecht Ruprecht.


Krampus, which translates as “claw,” is perhaps the most evil of Saint Nicholas’ companions.  Krampus is an Alpine tradition (parts of Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia) dating back to pre-Christian pagan culture, but wasn’t enlisted as a companion of Saint Nicholas until the 17th century.  Krampus’s main duty in assisting Saint Nicholas was punishing the bad children.  Unlike some of the ambiguous companions Saint Nicholas, who are mostly human, Krampus is pure devil and his appearance and behavior reflects this.

 In appearance, Krampus is usually covered in black or brown fur and has the cloven hooves and horns of the goat.  Usually his tongue is shown as lolling out of his mouth.  Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the devil by the Christian Church.  Sometimes these chains are accompanies by bells of various sizes.  Krampus also carries a “ruten,” or a bundle of birch branches, with which he beats children and a sack to carry away bad children to an icy creek to drown, to eat, or to transport to Hell.  

Historically, Alpine towns would have a parade where all the young men would dress as Krampus, become drunk, and run amok.  Such festivities were known as Krampuslauf, which is German for “Krampus run.”  Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards with featuring Krampus since the 1800’s.  The cards often show Krampus looming menacingly over children or pursuing a buxom woman.  Over time, however, the representation of Krampus on the cards has become has changed, from a more frightening Krampus to a tamer and cute and cuddly Krampus.  In a sense he was demoted from spawn of Satan murderer to mischievous prankster.

 Nonetheless, in the 20th century, the Austrian government began to discourage the practice of celebrating Krampus.  In the 1950’s the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man.”   Towards the end of the century, however, there has been a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations, which continues to this day.  There is a public debate in Austria about Krampus is appropriate for children.  Recently, Krampus has made an appearance in North American popular culture as part of a growing movement of “anti-Christmas” celebrations.

The Belsnickel likes to pose riddles.  Answer wrong and you get a beating.


The Belsnickel is a Pennsylvania Deutsch tradition which has its origins in Germanic folklore.  Belsnickel is a fur clad Christmas gift giver who shows up in Pennsylvania Deutsche communities a couple of weeks before Christmas.  His name translates as “Rough Nicholas” or “Wallop Nicholas” and this reflects the dual nature of his character.  The Belsnickel is Saint Nicholas and his evil companions rolled into one figure.  When he rolls into town he at first appears as ragged and mean, wearing tattered old clothes and furs, and carrying a switch to beat the bad children.  Sometimes he wears a mask with a long tongue lolling out, reminiscent of Krampus.  During his two week stay, the Belsnickel confronts the children in the community and questions them to make sure that they are behaving properly.  He raps on windows and doors with a stick to alert them to his presence.  Sometimes he commands them to sing him a song.  In exchange the Belsnickel will toss out candy onto the floor.  If the children jump too quick for the treats he may swat at them with his Belsnickel’s switch.

The strange behavior of the Belsnickel is thought to have its origin in Odin’s appearance as a wanderer in the community during the days leading up to Yule.  Like the Belsnickel, Odin appeared in disguise, weathered and covered in fur.  When they approached strangers, both Odin and the Belsnickel would pose them a riddle.  If they answered correctly, they would give them a reward, if incorrectly, they would dole out punishment from a switch.  Sometimes Odin and Belsnickel would give those people who gave a wrong answer a chance to redeem themselves, such giving them a physical challenge, such as wrestling with others who gave a wrong answer, or were ordered to perform a taxing chore, or a skill, such as singing a song.  If the challenges were successfully met, then Odin and the Belsnickel would clear them to celebrate and reap the rewards of Yuletide.  Odin and Belsnickel would then change over to their benevolent nature and distribute gifts to members of the community.

Le Père Fouettard

In parts of France and Belgium there is a character known as La Pere Fouettard.  In French the name means “Father Whipper.”  Le Pere Fouettard is a companion of Saint Nicholas and joins him on his rounds to deliver gifts during Saint Nicholas Eve on December 5th, dispensing lumps of coal and floggings to the naughty children while Saint Nicholas delivers the gifts to the nice.  Le Pere Fouettard’s has two origin stories.  In one story it seems that Le Pere Fouettard was the evil innkeeper (or butcher) who slit the throats of the three children, dismembers them, and puts them into a barrel in order to sell the meat as ham during a bad famine.  Saint Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children.  Afterwards, Le Pere Fouettard either repents and becomes Saint Nicholas’ partner, or is forced to become his assistant as punishment for his crimes.  

The other origin story concerns the siege of the French town of Metz in 1552.  During this siege the town’s people built an effigy of King Charles Quint, dragged it through the streets, and burned it.  Coinciding with this, a group of tanners constructed a figure out of hide with a whip to scare away children.  The liberation of Metz occurred around Saint Nicholas day, and somehow the burnt effigy of the King and the tanner’s grotesque figure merged into one being and produced La Pere Fouettard, who instantly became Saint Nicholas evil whipping companion.

In the 1930’s, Le Pere Fouettard made an appearance in the United States under the translated name Father Flogger or Spanky.  In America, however, he had a female accomplice named Mother Flog, and they nothing to do with Christmas.  They just enjoyed doling out specific punishments for specific childhood crimes, such as a liar having their tongue cut out.  

Four of Santa's Contemporaries by Chris Hall

Ever wonder how Santa Claus delivers all those presents to everyone around the world?  He doesn't, he has brothers and sisters throughout the world who help him. Santa Claus isn't the only holiday gift giver this season.  Here is the history of Santa Claus’ other siblings, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Christkindl, and La Befana, the Christmas Witch .

Sinterklaas has Odin's beard but wears St. Nicholas' Bishop Clothing.


Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas’ incarnation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  He really isn’t that much different from the Saint Nicholas as he wears Saint Nicholas’ bishop outfit and is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th.  Sinterklaas delivers gifts on the night before, December 5th.  What makes Sinterklaas different is that, like Odin, he wears a long white beard, rides a flying horse, and delivers his gifts by rooftop chimney.  In the Netherlands the horse is named Amerigo, in Belgium the horse is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning "Bad Weather Today."  Sinterklaas is known to carry a large book with a list of all the children who have been naughty or nice.  The American Santa Claus is a direct descendent of Sinterklaas.  Santa Claus is the anglicized name of Sinterklaas, and was invented by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.  

Unlike Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from his home in Spain.  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so this is why he arrives by boat.  As to why Sinterklaas lives in Spain, some have suggested that the gold balls that are Saint Nicholas’ attributes, while meant to symbolize the three bags of gold, which he gave to the three poor girls as a dowry, are commonly misidentified as being three oranges, and oranges come from Spain.  It should also be noted that Saint Nicholas has been buried in Bari since the 11th century.  Bari is now in southern Italy, but from the 15th to 18th century, Bari was part of the Kingdom of Spain.  

During the Middle Ages, Sinterklaas festivities began to rival Carnival for its drunken excesses. The Protestant Reformation thought Sinterklaas was too reminiscent of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, so Sinterklaas went into hiding.  The role of gift giver was transferred to Christkindl, the Christ Child, and gifts were exchanged on Christmas, on December 25th, not on Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.  Christkindl was never really popular with the people, and Sinterklaas soon return, but in a more secular form, in the 19th century.  Sinterklaas also returned with a Moor servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who helps Sinterklaas out with distributing gifts, but who also punishes the bad children.  Often accompanying the gifts are humorous and sarcastic poems from Sinterklaas, teasing the recipient for well-known bad habits and character deficiencies.   

Image from an anonymous pamphlet showing Father Christmas on trial.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas, a forerunner of Santa Claus.  He is known by different names in different countries, (France, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Hispanic South America, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, India, Andorra, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria all have a Father Christmas figure).  Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, and like Odin, delivers gifts via chimney.  Some have argued that Father Christmas was born sometime after Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England in the 16th century, but there are clear indications that he was around in the 15th century.  At this time Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but was an instigator of celebration and good cheer for adults on the news of Christ’s birth.  He was a party man and Christmas celebrations rivaled Carnival in their excesses.

 By the mid 17th century and the rise of Puritanism, Father Christmas became a controversial figure.  Royalists supported Father Christmas celebrations, while Puritans wanted to ban them.  The English colonies founded by Puritans in America prohibited the celebration of Christmas.  When the Puritans came to power in 1644 one of the first things Oliver Cromwell did was to enact legislation to ban all Christmas merry making.  Father Christmas was sent packing.  Fortunately for Father Christmas, his exile was short lived, and with the return of the Charles the II, a chastened Father Christmas returned as well.  By the 18th century, Father Christmas was no longer the lord of excess, but became a social progressive, lecturing stingy business owners for their greed and championing the poor.  Charles Dickens used Father Christmas (in disguise as the Ghost of Christmas Present) to scold Scrooge for his miserly ways.  By this time Father Christmas had assumed the role of gift giver.  During the 20th century, Father Christmas was banned in the Eastern Bloc by cheerless communists because of his religious past.  But if the failed Puritan attempt proved anything, it was that you can’t keep good cheer down.  Father Christmas has since returned there, too.

Christkindl and Father Christmas tag teaming up the gift delivery.


Christkindl, or the Christkind, is the traditional gift giver in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, parts of Poland, parts of Hispanic America, some areas in Brazil, and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.  Christkindl is translates as the Christ Child.  Christkindl is literally Jesus as a child delivering gifts to children.  Christkindl was introduced by Martin Luther as a replacement for Saint Nicholas during the gift giving festivities during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  To prevent any confusion, the gift giving day was moved from Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, to Christmas Day on December 25th.  Oddly enough, while Christkindl never really became too popular with Protestants, beginning in the 19th century he was adopted more readily in Catholic parts of the world.

Today the Christkind is often depicted as a sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings, and the role is often portrayed by a young woman.  Since the 1990’s however, Christkindl has faced increasing competition from Santa Claus, as Santa Claus is not above appearing in advertisements and commercials, while Christkindl usually shies away from such vulgarity.  Kris Kringle is the American pronunciation of Christkindl.  Somehow through time, Kris Kringle (the Christ Child) has become conflated with the bearded, jolly, and decidedly grown-up Santa Claus.   

La Befana, the Christmas Witch.

La Befana

La Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th), but such is her popularity that she often makes appearances around Christmas time as well.  Italians are lucky in that they get gifts from Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or the Christkind, and La Befana.  Befana is thought to descendant from the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, who was the gift giving figure in Roman culture on New Years Eve.  Strenia’s and La Befana’s gifts were figs, dates, and honey, though today her gifts are mostly candies and small toys.  La Befana was not popular with some of the early Christians as her celebrations were often noisy, riotous, and licentious affairs.   

According to legend, Befana was approached by the Biblical Magi (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus.  They asked Befana for directions, and while she did not know the way, she provided them with shelter for the night.  The Magi invited her to join them on their journey, but she declined, saying she had a lot of housework to attend to.  Later, Befana changed her mind and began her own search, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.  She never finds the manger in Bethlehem, and her search continues to this day.  Along the way she leaves good children toys and candy and bad children a lump of coal, an onion, or garlic, or in some poorer regions, such as rural Sicily, simply a stick.  

In another legend, La Befana has a child whom she greatly loves.  The child dies and the resulting grief maddens her.  Upon hearing the news of Jesus’ birth, she set out to see him as she is under the delusion that Jesus is her son reborn.  She met Jesus and presented him with gifts.  Jesus was delighted and in return gave her a gift.  She would now be the mother to all the children of Italy.  So now La Befana flies all over Italy on her broom to deliver gifts to the children on the eve of Epiphany.  Being a good housekeeper, sometimes she will sweep the floor of a house before she leaves.  To some people this is symbolic of sweeping away the problems of the old year to make room for the optimism of the New Year.  The children of the families who she visits will typically leave a small glass of wine and some snacks out for her, but dare not try to catch her in while she is in the house, as La Befana is said to beat with her broom any children who happen to see her.  Like Santa Claus, Odin, and others, La Befana enters the house through the chimney, so she is depicted as being perpetually covered in soot.

Santa's Pagan Origins by Chris Hall

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Our present day Santa Claus (an American invention) as well as some of his European contemporaries (Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, etc) is an amalgamation of the Christian St. Nicholas and a variety of pagan mythological sources.  In honor of Christmas, I’ve decided to research and write about some of Santa’s pagan antecedents.  Here you will read about the Germanic god Odin, the Yule Goat, the Tomte and Nisse spirits, the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, and the giant ogress Gryla and her sons the Yule Lads.  Merry Christmas!


The name Odin is derived from the Old Norse, meaning “the furious one,” Odin is the king of the gods in the Germanic pantheon and ruler of Asgard.  Odin is associated with war, victory, and death, but also represents wisdom, Shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt.  Like Mercury in the Roman pantheon, Odin is a Psychopomp, or a guider of souls from one realm to the next.  Like most pagan deities, Odin is ambivalent towards the fate and fortunes of mankind; he is the bringer of poetry as well war.  

Odin rides on a flying horse with eight legs named Sleipner, and is accompanied by two talking ravens, Huginn and Muninn or “Thought” and “Memory.”  Odin’s ravens fly away from him during the day and report the news of all they have seen of the world back to him during the evening.  Having spirit animals, particularly ravens, his relation to poetry and inspiration, as well as his role as a Psychopomp, connects Odin firmly within the realm of Shamanism.  

Odin has one eye in his head, as he sacrificed an eye by dropping it in Mimir’s magic well in order gain wisdom.  Odin prepares a sacrifice to himself by hanging himself from the World Tree for nine day and having himself pierced by his sword, also in order to gain wisdom.  Germanic mythology promotes the notion, then, that with suffering comes great wisdom.

As a Psychopomp, Odin receives the souls of the valiant dead into the Halls of Valhalla.  Only through a heroic death can a soul achieve immortality.  All other souls perish.  Odin saves the souls of the valiant so they can assist the gods during the final battle during Ragnarok. 

Odin carries a magic spear named Gungnir which never misses its target, a magic gold ring which multiplies into nine new rings each day, and the severed head of Mimir which foretells the future.  

The Wild Hunt by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1857

Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt, leading a host of slain warriors and Valkyries in furious and violent pursuit across the sky.  Seeing the Wild Hunt is considered to be a bad omen, foretelling future disaster or war.  Odin’s Wild Hunt takes place around the same time as the Germanic Yule festival, in midwinter.  Wars would often start when the frost thaws in spring.  In the meantime, Odin would make up for it with the Yule festival.  Like Santa Claus, Odin would sometimes climb down the chimney and leave gifts for people.

Odin is killed (or is to be killed) by the wolf Fenrir during “Ragnarok,” which is the “Twillight of the gods” and the world apocalypse.  

After Christianity was introduced, Saint Nicholas rode on the back of the Yule Goat.  Previously, the Yule Goat was a Goat-Man who gave gifts during the Winter Solstice.

Yule Goat

In many Scandinavian countries, the midwinter gift giver was a man dressed as a goat, a Yule Goat.  A popular theory as to why the goat was chosen as a gift giver is that Odin’s son, Thor, rode around the sky in a chariot driven by his two flying goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  Then Christianity came, and the Yule Goat took a back seat to Saint Nicholas.  Before Santa Claus had his famous reindeer, Saint Nicholas would often keep the company of Yule Goats, sometimes riding them, suggesting his dominance over the devil.  In the Scandinavian wassailing tradition, often times people would dress in holiday costumes.  A rowdy Yule Goat demanding gifts was often included in the mix.  In Sweden the Yule Goat was an invisible spirit that showed up before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done properly.  The Yule Goat, in straw effigy form, was often the center of a prank where people would the Yule Goat in a neighbor’s house without their knowledge; the neighbor successfully pranked had to rid themselves of the Yule Goat in the same way.  

For a short time beginning in the 19th Century the Yule Goat returned to role of being the gift giver with people once again dressing as goats to distribute gifts.  Once again, the Yule Goat was eventually replaced by the end of the century, but not with Saint Nicholas.  The Yule Goat was instead replaced with the more secular Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus.  Today there is once again a Yule Goat revival, particularly in Finland.  The Yule Goat often takes the form of small Christmas ornaments, but sometimes as a giant straw or stick effigy erected in cities and towns.  Often times these giant Yule Goat effigies are the victims of arson.  Meanwhile, in Finland, many people are once again returning to dressing up in Yule Goat costumes.  

Tomte's Barn Dance by Jan Bergerlind

Tomte and Nisse

They are called Tomte in Sweden and Nisse in Norway and Denmark.  Tomte and Nisse are little miniature versions of Santa Claus.  They are fairies or gnomes who give gifts to people during the winter solstice.  Tomte and Nisse are small creatures ranging from a few inches but slightly under three feet tall. Like Santa Claus, they have long white beards and wear bright red robes.  Sometimes they are depicted as having a single, cyclopean eye.  Sometimes they are also thought to be shape-shifters, able to take on any appearance they choose.  The Yule Goat and the Tomte coexisted, with the Tomte gaining more acceptance with the introduction of Christianity.  However, it should be noted, that while the Tomte seem more benevolent in surface appearance, the Tomte could actually be quite cruel and dangerous.  If treated well, the Tomte and Nisse  would help out with the chores, but if not respected, they would play tricks, start to steal things, and might even maim or kill your livestock.  It should be noted that the bite of a Tomte or Nisse is considered to be poisonous.  The Tomte and Nisse would leave gifts at the doors of people during the midwinter solstice.  In gratitude, and to prevent their potentially lethal pranks, it was a tradition to leave a bowl of porridge with butter out for their kind gesture.  With the introduction of Christianity, the Tomte and Nisse were demonized.  A farmer jealous of his neighbor’s success might accuse him of using a Tomte or Nisse in order to bring about the wrath of the community.  Beginning in the mid 1800’s there was a revival of interest in Tomte and Nisse as the deliverer of Christmas gifts.  It has become quite a confusing affair as the Tomte and Nisse are either in competition or conflated with both the Yule Goat and the American version of Santa Claus.

The Roman goddess Strenia.


In ancient Roman religion, Strenia was a goddess of the New Year, purification, and wellbeing.  Strenia has her origin not in the Greek pantheon, but was adopted from their enemies, the Sabines outside of Rome.  The original Romans are thought to be refugees from Troy after their loss during the Trojan War.  Troy is in modern Turkey, near Greece, so they worshiped Greek gods and goddesses.  Adopting Strenia, a goddess of the Sabines, a people native to Italy whom they would conquer, is unusual.  On January 1, twigs from Strenia's grove were carried in a procession to the citadel in Rome.  In return for maintaining her cult, Strenia would bestow good fortune.  New Years gifts called strenae would also be exchanged between people.  St. Augustine writes that Strenia was the goddess who made people “strenuus”, or strong.  The gift giving cult of Strenia survives in Italy today in Befana, the “Christmas Witch.”

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

Gryla and the Yule Lads

Once upon a time in Iceland there was a giant troll who lived in a cave in the mountains named Gryla.  Once a year around the winter solstice she would leave her cave in search of her favorite prey, naughty children, who she would boil in a hot stew.  She had three husbands, none of whom could compete with her malice and wickedness.  Some say Gryla is dead, while others have her living in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields.  Gryla had many children, including the famous 13 Yule Lads.  By the 17th century the Yule Lads continued in Gryla’s tradition of Christmas violence, each Yule Lad’s behavior ranging from mere pranks to homicidal monsters who eat children.  One by one they leave their cave in the mountains and appear on one of the 13 days before Christmas to scare children who have been naughty.  Sometimes they are accompanied by a giant Yule Cat who attacks and eats the children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.  

Unlike many other European countries, Icelandic culture remained more resistant to the introduction of Christianity.  Gryla and her offspring never really went underground or were suppressed until 1746.  The stories of Gryla and the 13 Yule Lads had become so terrifying that there was a decree prohibiting their re-telling to children with the intent to frighten.  

During the 19th century, the Yule Lads and even their hideous mother, Gryla, underwent a gradual rehabilitation.  They no longer were the child snatchers and cannibals of folklore, but had become mere thieving tricksters, who, nevertheless, are out to punish bad children on the 13 days before Christmas.  Each Yule Lad was given a name, identifying their specific mischievous character.  They arrive and depart on specific days:  

December 12th.  Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold-stick).  He harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg legs.  Departs December 25th.

December 13th.  Giljagaur (Gulley-gawk).  He hides in gullies waiting for the chance to sneak into a barn and steal milk.  Departs December 26th.

December 14th.  Stúfur (Shorty).  Abnormally short, he steals pans in order to eat the crusts left behind.  Departs December 27th.

December 15th.  Thvörusleikir (Spoon-licker).  He steals wooden spoons with long handles.  He is thin and malnourished.  Departs December 28th.

December 16th.  Pottasleikir (Pot-scraper).  He steals left-over food from pots.  Departs December 29th.

December 17th.  Askasleikir (Bowl-licker).  He hides under beds waiting for people to put down their “askur” which a type of bowl with a lid.  He then steals them.  Departs December 30th.

 December 18th.  Hurdaskellir (Door-slammer).  He likes to slam doors, especially during the night.  Departs December 31st.

December 19th.  Skyrgámur (Skyr-gobbler).  This Yule Lad has a craving for skyr, a kind of Icelandic yogurt.  Departs January 1st.

December 20th.  Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-swiper).  He hides in the rafters and steals sausages that are being smoked.  Departs January 2nd.

December 21st.  Gluggagægir (Peeping-Tom).  He looks into windows in search of . . . something to steal.  Departs January 3rd.

December 22nd.  Gáttathefur (Doorway Sniffer).  He has a large nose which he uses to locate Christmas bread, so he can steal it.  Departs January 4th.

December 23rd.  Kjötkrókur (Meat-hook).  He uses a hook to steal meat.  Departs January 5th.

December 24th.  Kertasníkir (Candle-stealer).  He follows children in order to steal their candles, which were once edible as they were made of tallow.  Departs January 6th.

By the early 20th century the Yule Lads have become basically reformed and have taken on a more benevolent gift giving role comparable to Santa Claus.  They now place gifts in the shoes of good Icelandic children, but occasionally will place rotten potatoes in the shoes of bad children.  Likewise, they are occasionally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are otherwise generally shown wearing the red robe costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus.  

St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.