Santa Claus is undoubtedly the most famous gift-giver of the Holiday Season, but he’s not alone. The world is full of “Santa alternatives,” ranging from witches to goats to babies to female versions of Jesus himself. Many of these “other gift givers” have seen their popularity diminish in recent decades, pushed out by the ever growing specter of Santa Claus. Things are changing though, thanks to the internet there has been renewed interest in recent years about Kris Kringle’s associates. Yuletide has plenty of room for more magickal and mythical figures, I hope some of these characters find a little room around your Christmas Tree. (And if you are interested in the history of Santa Claus click here.)
La Befana Italy’s native gift-gifter is La Befana, an Italian Witch who was asked by the Three Wise Men to join them on their journey to Bethlehem. Wishing to put her house in order before the long journey, Befana missed her opportunity to join the Maji and now wanders the world in search of Christ. The Russian version of Befana, Baboushka, has a tale similar to La Befana’s, though a little more sinister. In some versions of her visit with the Three Wise Men she purposefully gave the Magi wrong directions to Bethlehem. She later repented and now wanders the world in search of Jesus. Traditionally Befana leaves presents on Epiphany (along with bags of ashes for the naughty) and her name is most likely a corruption of Epiphania the Greek word for Epiphany.
Various attempts have been made over the years to link Befana to Roman goddesses with varying degrees of success. (In other words, the jury is still out on that one.) In addition to her role as gift-giver some see her as symbolic of the old year passing. Befana is pictured as both an unattractive older women and sometimes as a sexy younger witch. Outside of Italy La Befana is honored anywhere there is a large Italian population.
Jólasveinar (also known as The Yule Lads and Yule Goblins) Yule Goblins doesn’t sound very festive and originally the Jólasveinar weren’t very festive either. The Yule Lads began their association with the Holiday Season as dastardly visitors and the tales about them were so frightening that the Danish Government passed a law outlawing people from using the Yule Goblins to frighten children. Eventually the Jólasveinar went from being malicious to a welcome part of Iceland’s Christmas tradition.
Originally the Yule Lads varied in number, but today most Icelanders honor thirteen Lads, with each Lad being distinct. According to tradition the Jólasveinar arrive one by one to the populated parts of Iceland from the island’s interior. Children leave their shoes by the door every night over the course of thirteen days with a different lad placing small gifts inside them in the run-up to Christmas. One by one the Lads head back to where they came from, departing by the end of the Christmas-Season on January 6. Like most other gift-givers the Lads are also known to leave unwanted things for the bad children, like rotten potatoes.
Christkindl The Christkindl has evolved into two very separate Holiday traditions. Originally a Protestant alternative to Saint Nicholas, the Christkindl was the Christ Child, a young Jesus as Holiday gift-giver. In many parts of Europe this version of the Christkindl still brings gifts at Christmas, but in other areas something else entirely evolved out of the tradition.
Google Christkind today and you’ll get images of angelic young women, it’s this version of the Christkindl that is most prevalent in Germany, Austrian, and among America’s Pennsylvania Dutch Communities. Over time the Christ Child evolved into a blonde child with angel wings. Eventually this figure came to be portrayed by young women. This interpretation of the Christkindl who often ushers in the Holidays by presiding over the opening of the Christkindlmarkt or Christmas Market. (Chicago Illinois has a large Christkindlmarket, complete with a female Christkind.) Christkind was eventually anglicized into Kris Kringle and became another name for Santa Claus.
Krampus (also Krumpus, Krampusz, Grampus) No Holiday figure has enjoyed a more far-ranging renaissance the last few years than the Krampus. The Krampus has been the official assistant to Saint Nicholas in various parts of Central Europe for centuries, and the history of this figure stretches back even further. The Krampus is a descendant of pre-Christian Germanic pagan traditions and has also been linked to figures in Norse Mythology. Grampus-like figures certainly figured in Midwinter mummerings, with individuals dressed up as animals and mythological figures. Eventually Krampus evolved into a December Devil.
The Krampus generally plays “Bad Cop” to St. Nicholas’s “Good Cop,” post cards from the Nineteenth Century show him spanking naughty children and he’s been said to threaten naughty children with being thrown into the basket on his back, though usually Nicholas saves children from this predicament. St. Nicholas and Krampus generally make their rounds on December 5, on the eve of St. Nicholas’s Feast Day (a traditional time for presents in many European countries) and sometimes called Krampusnacht after everyone’s favorite horned-Christmas figure. The Atlantic Monthly released a photo essay with contemporary images of Krampus just a few weeks ago, it’s very worth checking out. Some have worried that the recent revival of interest in Krampus might take away his more sinister past, but judging from those pictures in The Atlantic I don’t think there’s much reason to worry.
Three Wise Men (Los Reyes Magos) In many parts of the Spanish-speaking world it’s Epiphany (sometimes called Three Kings Day) that’s the traditional day for gift-giving. Those gifts are brought not by a Santa-like figure but by the Magi mentioned in the New Testament book of Matthew. The author of Matthew doesn’t share the number of Magi with his readers, but later Christian tradition settles on Three Wise Men and creates backstories for Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.
Children leave their shoes at the door (and sometimes some treats for the Magi’s camels and Balthasar’s donkey) for the Three Wise Men to fill with presents. Parades, known as the Cavalcade of the Magi, are often elaborate and festive affairs. Many of those parades feature Balthasar played by a native Spaniard in black-face, a practice that’s coming under increasing criticism. Countries where the Three Wise Men are the primary gift givers include Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Belsnickel Belsnickel (sometimes Pelznickel, German for “Nichols in Furs”) is another rather dour assistant to Saint Nicholas. He operates much like the Krampus, questioning children as to their misdeeds, though he sometimes visits the little ones on his own. He usually carries a switch as a form of intimidation. The Belsnickel is occasionally depicted like a garden gnome, but the truer version features a man dressed up in animal skins, very much like the European Wild Man. In Baltimore Belsnickel used to figure prominently in German Catholic Christmas Parades. In Pennsylvania Dutch communities and parts of Nova Scotia the custom of Belsnickling remains popular. Belsnicking is a more modern day version of mumming with individuals dressing up and going door to door for treats and often responding with musical performances. More recently the Belsnickel was featured in an episode of The Office (American version).
Yule Goat/Joulupukki Perhaps my favorite “other” and the strangest character on this list is the Joulupukki or Yule Goat (also known as the Yule Buck) of Finland. Originally the Yule Goat was a man dressed up in goat skins looking quite goatish. Sadly at the beginning of the Twentieth Century he increasingly became a more Santa-like figure, keeping the name Joulupukki but losing the goat skins. In 1927 a Finnish broadcaster began sharing stories of Joulupukki living on Finland’s Mount Ear, a tradition as familiar to Fins as Santa living at the North Pole is to Americans.
Attempts to trace the Yule Goat to a pagan ancestor have risen to speculation that he might be an echo of Odin, but Thor is a much more likely choice. Thor’s chariot was driven by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, the Yule Goat might very well be their cousins. Some depictions of the Yule Goat have turned him into a pack-animal rather than gift-giver. While the Yule Goat doesn’t pass out a lot of presents these days, he’s still a popular ornament for the tree.
Black Pete Black Pete (also known as Zwarte Piet) is Saint Nicholas’s assistant in the Netherlands. He generally wears Moorish medieval dress and is often depicted by a man in blackface. The tradition of Black Pete began when the Netherlands were ruled by Spain, coincidently the home of Zwarte Piet. Like most helper figures he can be both benign and threatening. He’s been known to share candy with children, and to threaten bad ones with sticking them in his bag and forcing them to live in Spain for a year. Pete is a common Dutch figure in late November and early December in the lead up to Saint Nicholas Day on December 6. Not surprisingly Pete has come under a lot of criticism for being racially insensitive (and deservedly so).
Father Christmas The English Father Christmas has been largely consumed by the American Santa Claus but he has a long and unique history all his own. The origins of the figure also known as Sir (or Lord) Christmas can be traced back to English writer Ben Johnson who wrote of Christmas His Masque in 1616. Johnson’s figure had a long beard of course, and twenty years later picked up a “furred gown and cap.” Father Christmas was not originally a gift giver, but functioned as a literary and artistic personification of the holiday. He was more a figure related to games and feasting than the desires of children, but the popularity of Santa changed his role in English society. Even though he’s picked up many of Santa’s attributes, some versions of the figure still remain unique.
Tomte The Tomte (or Nisse in Norway) are gnome-like figures associated with Christmas and the Winter Solstice. In folklore the Tomte are depicted as mischievous figures who often play pranks on unsuspecting humans. They also have a more vengeful side and were said to kill livestock when they were offended. Unlike most gift-givers the Tomte live in the home and often act as household guardians (when not playing pranks or killing livestock). They eventually evolved into Christmas gift-givers, sharing gifts on Christmas Eve with good children. Instead of cookies and milk the Tomte prefer a good bowl of porridge with butter. Porridge is also a good way to make amends with an offended Tomte. More recently the Tomte have begun to recognize the better known Santa Claus.
Baby New Year The Mankey family has a long tradition of gifts on New Year’s Day, magically delivered by the Baby New Year. When I was a boy (and even beyond that) my family all left their least smelly shoes by the front door for Baby New Year to fill. He mostly left small gifts-a Chewbacca action figure, comic books, perhaps a cassette tape, and usually some candy. When I asked my Father why the gifts were so small and why Baby New Year didn’t visit my friends houses he replied “Because he’s a baby, and can’t carry very much, he also doesn’t have time to visit everybody in the world.” Due to the character Happy from the cartoon Rudolph’s Shiny New Year I thought gifts from Baby New Year were a pretty normal thing. Years later and I’ve never met another family with this tradition, though New Year’s gift givers aren’t unusual, that’s when Father Noel delivers presents in Turkey.
Happy Holidays no matter who your gift giver might be!
This piece would have been impossible to write without Gerry Bowler’s World Encyclopedia of Christmas published in the year 2000 by McClelland & Stewart. For the bit on Father Christmas I consulted Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, published by Oxford University Press in 1996.