Right now, Father Christmas is getting all the toys ready for the night of the 24th. He will fly, with his reindeer, across the globe in just one evening (for which we have insured him) delivering presents. Around the world there are similar traditions; mysterious characters arrive to give presents to the good children and something not so nice to the naughty ones!
Russia – Dedushka Moroz and Snegurochka
Dedushka Moroz in Russian literally translates to Grandfather Frost, and Snegurochka; The Snow Maiden. Ded Moroz (as he is known) looks a lot like Santa but generally has a much longer beard and walks with a magical staff. He delivers presents to children on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Eve and is happy to be seen, unlike secretive Santa. The origins of his character weren’t always so pleasant. Ded Moroz was originally a cruel and evil sorcerer; he froze people solid and kidnapped children, putting them in his large sack. Parents were said to offer him presents as ransom for their children!
As time went on the story changed and Ded Moroz became a benevolent character. His side-kick, Snegurochka, is his granddaughter and she has her own rather sad story. She is said to be born of Frost and Spring, but wishes for the company of mortal human beings. She becomes attached to a shepherd, but her frozen heart doesn’t allow her to love. Her mother feels sorry for her so gives her the ability to love, but as she falls for him her heart melts.
And she dies.
How she got to be delivering presents with Grandfather Frost, I have no idea…
Netherlands – Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
It will come as no surprise that we got “Santa Claus” from the Dutch Sinterklaas. If you haven’t figured it out why yet, say it out loud! Sinterklaas comes to town on St Nicholas’s day, the 6th December, along with his companion Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, from Madrid. No, this doesn’t sound very politically correct to me either. They arrive by boat then lead a procession into town, riding a white horse. On the evening of the 5th children put out shoes or clogs for Sinterklaas to leave presents in. If they leave carrots and hay out for his horse, he will leave sweets for them too.
Black Peter isn’t quite so kindly. He has a notebook in which he documents all the naughty goings-on from the past year, and if the children have been naughty, not only do they miss out on presents, they get chased by Black Peter with a large stick! It’s not unusual to see men blacked-up around this time, dressed in red or blue, lace collars and feathered caps. Black Peter accompanies Sinterklaas on his public outings, and needless to say he doesn’t always go down too well. To many dressing up as Black Peter is a harmless tradition, but to others it’s offensive and inappropriate.
Iceland – The Yule Lads and the Christmas Cat
Where do I start with the Yule Lads? This is by far the strangest of the traditions I have come across! The Yule Lads are 13 “mischievous” lads, though their numbers have varied throughout the ages. I put mischievous in quote marks because some of them go a little beyond the mischievous mark. Their names indicate their favourite pastime, I shall list them: Sheep Cote Clod (has stiff legs, likes to suckle ewes), Gully Gawk (hides in ditches and steals milk), Stubby (is short and steals food from the frying pan), Spoon Licker (self explanatory), Pot Scraper (steals pots that haven’t been washed yet and eats the stuck on food), Bowl Licker (hides underneath beds and when someone puts their bowl down, licks it clean), Door Slammer (likes to do slam doors in the dead of night), Skyr Gobbler (Skyr is a kind of dairy product native to Iceland. He likes that), Sausage Swiper (loves a sausage and will steal as many as he can), Window Peeper (possibly the creepiest of the lot, sometimes steals the toys he sees through the window), Door Sniffer (has a large honk and uses it to smell cakes baking inside- which, of course, he then steals), Meat Hook (lowers a large hook down the chimney with the aim of stealing some meat) and lastly Candle Beggar (he begs for candles, which were precious many year ago). Each Lad comes on their own day leading up to Christmas Eve and leaves a little present in the shoe that has been left out for them. If the children have been naughty they get a potato.
A miserable potato is nothing compared to being CAUGHT BY THE CHRISTMAS CAT! This legend is over 200 years old and says that if a child doesn’t receive at least one new item of clothing for Christmas, they will be caught and dragged off by a vicious cat from ‘the north’ that prowls around at night. As if it wasn’t bad enough you didn’t get that dress you wanted for Christmas!
Spain – Three Wise Men
In Spain children often receive presents from Father Christmas AND the Three Wise Men! On January 5th there are town processions, called Epiphany parades. Each Wise Man has his own large camel-shaped float and there are often real camels in the parade too! The Wise Men throw sweets to the children in the crowd. Each Wise Man has his own distinctive look: Caspar has brown hair and a brown beard, wears green robes and a gold crown. He is the king of Sheba and brought Frankincense to baby Jesus. Balthazar has dark skin, no beard and wears a purple cloak. He is the king of Egypt and his gift was Myrrh. Melchior has white hair and a white beard. He wears a golden cloak and is the King of Arabia. He brought Jesus gold.
Later that evening before the children go to bed they put out their best shoes out for the Wise Men to leave presents in. They also leave out milk and biscuits for them and some water, or hay, for the camels they travel on- after all they must be tired! The next morning the children awake to find their gifts, if they have been bad throughout the year they will find a lump of coal- although these days it can be made out of sugar. Tasty! Although exciting, The Wise Men signify the end of Christmas period so it is sad in a way.
Germany – Der Nikolaus and Christkind
There are many opportunities for children to receive presents for Christmas in Germany! Of course there is Santa Claus, he comes on the 24th December but they also have Der Nikolaus who comes on the evening of the 5th December. He brings small gifts that fit into the shoes of children. Nikolaus has a companion called Knecht Ruprecht, who is frankly terrifying. He is a monster clothed in rags with huge horns. He carries a bag of ashes (ashes of what exactly, I’m not sure) and he beats the naughty children with his sack. He also leaves sticks in the shoes of the naughty so their parents can beat them with it in the morning. Merry Christmas!
In some parts of Germany children also write letters to Christkind, or Christ Child. The letters request presents and are left on the windowsill at the beginning of Advent. Christkind is said to be a young, curly haired blonde girl who has the qualities of Jesus. Sometimes she has a golden crown and sometimes she has wings. Every year in Nuremberg there is a Christkind parade where a young girl is chosen to represent Christkind. She wears a long white and gold dress and opens Nuremberg’s Christmas Market. Throughout the Christmas period she will visit hospitals, nurseries and old people’s homes, and sometimes even give interviews on television!