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Within the rankings of holiday icons, Santa Claus is instantly noted as a jolly figure with his full white bearded and chubby, cuddly demeanor. Yet, in other parts of the globe, the concept of Christmas folklore is, well, a bit different. Christmas characters—whether that’s a he, she, it or they—can be a far cry from what we’ve come to expect at shopping malls and department stores. Here are some countries that have a different concept of Santa or his entourage—from the quirky to the downright scary.

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Italy – Befana

Despite looking like a witch and riding on a broomstick, this older Italian woman is a really nice lady. She also acts like Santa Claus (or Babbo Natale in Italian) in that she brings candy and toys to Italy’s good children and lumps of coal to bad kids. The difference is she arrives in January on the eve of the religious holiday of the Epiphany. Her legend is also tied to Christ’s birth. One story says she was invited by the Magi to visit the baby Jesus with them, but she turned them down and then later on tried to go on her own but couldn’t find them. Another tale indicates that she did see Jesus and brought him a gift. Nowadays, the Italian municipality of Urbania gives this lady much respect with a three-day public festival in January called “Festa Nazionale della Befana” held in her honor.

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The Netherlands – Sinterklaas

While he looks almost similar to Santa Claus, this Dutchman wears a red papal gown, rides on his white-grey horse named Amerigo, and isn’t carrying around as much weight as his counterpart does (no offense). Plus, he comes to town—or actually Amsterdam—a month early. Each year, on a Sunday in mid-November, he arrives in this major city from his home in Spain (history suggests it’s due the country’s past domination over The Netherlands) to start off the holiday season with a massive parade through the city. Children line the route to wave at “Sint” and hopefully catch some raining sweets. In return, Sint drops off a sack full of gifts on the doorstep before heading home to Spain on the evening of December 5, the night before the feast day of Saint Nicolas (December 6).

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Austria: Krampus

Krampus easily wins the season for being the most frightening of all the Christmas figures. Just about every place in Austria honors a version of Krampus—and he is as gruff as his name sounds. Being “half-goat” and “half-demon,” this horned folkloric character zealously carries out his duty during the Christmas season: punishing misbehaving children with chains or rods, or devouring them for dinner. While he’s quite the contrast in terms of St. Nicholas, Krampus is honored through parades and festivals with people dressing up as him and running through the streets. For example, Salzburg holds a number of Krampus runs from late November though early December, while Graz features a massive “Krampus and Perchten” procession on December 3.

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Finland – Joulupukki

With his name translating to “Yule Goat,” this Finish figure originally came from Pagan roots linked to a Nordic practice of people dressing up in animal disguises. This goat was actually scary, too, and he certainly didn’t give out any gifts either. Over time, the goat changed in appearance and mannerisms for the better, to become the red-robed, reindeer-pulled sleigh riding gift giver that the Fins knows today. Joulupukki’s home isn’t  too different from Santa’s either: His home address in Rovaniemi, a Northern Finland city that’s also the capital of Lapland, resembles the North Pole. Named “the official hometown of Santa Claus” in 2010, Rovaniemi has a year-round Santa Claus Village, a touristy venue that ushers in the holiday season with a grand celebration in late November.  And Joulupukki probably greets his guests until he has to leave for his delivery route.

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Catalonia – Tió de Nadal

In Spain’s Catalonia region, there’s a wooden Christmas character made of a small, hollow log that’s placed on two legs, sporting a smile and red hat. Tio de Nadal’s name literally means “the Christmas log” but he has a second nickname: “Caga tio” (or the pooping log)! Starting on the Feast of Immaculate Conception (December 8) and continuing up until Christmas, Catalan families will cater to this log by giving it a small meal consisting of a few morsels of food, plus a blanket to keep it warm. Then on Christmas Eve, the log “hands out” small gifts under the blanket—use your imagination! People will sing a special song and hit the log with sticks to help its digestion; in turn, Caga Tio drops out some sweet treats like candies and nuts. When a stinky food falls out, it means all the treats are done. Hold your own celebration by visiting Barcelona’s Fira de Santa Llúcia (a Christmas market from late November through December 23) and get a Tió de Nadal to take home.

By Sergeev Pavel via Wikimedia Commons

Russia – Ded Moroz

The name of Russia’s version of Santa Claus literally translates as “Old Man Frost” or “Father Frost” and he has facial features similar to those of St. Nick. Yet he’s a pretty different version. He carries a staff and delivers presents to children on New Year’s Eve via a Russian troika, a horse-carriage. He’s also got a helper; his granddaughter, Snegurochka, a female fairy-tale figure also known as “the Snow Maiden.” It’s also possible to spot this pair at winter events such as the Russian Winter Festival in Moscow, happening from mid-December to mid-January. Or trek north to his homebase in the city of Veliky Ustyug, where it’s said that Ded Moroz departs from in late December and comes back in next March to usher in springtime. Meanwhile, his “residence” is open to the public where visitors can shop inside a post office to get souvenir cards and stamps and a specialty postmark.

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Iceland – The  Yule Lads

In total, Iceland’s got not just one Santa but actually 13 of them; collectively they’re known as the Yule Lads. Yet instead of riding around on a sleigh, this holiday brood does a lot of footwork, apparently walking from town to town delivering gifts for good children and supposedly spoiled potatoes for not so good ones. So perhaps it’s fitting that Icelanders celebrate the same amount of days for Christmas (December 24 through January 6).  Each of them has his own unique personality, too, in being cheeky imps who play little tricks on people such as slamming doors in private homes or licking bowls clean. While these guys are mostly harmless, their mother, Grýla, is downright terrifying. Grýla has a long history of hunting for children; naughty kids are her favorite snack. Keep a safe distance while exploring Iceland’s Christmas markets like Yule Town in Reykjavik‘s Ingólfstorg square (from December 2 through 23).

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Switzerland – Silvesterchläuse

This set of seasonal visitors can seem like something from another realm or planet, yet they’re actually part of a New Year’s tradition dating back over 200 years. There are three types of Silvesterchläuse: the Schöne (Beautiful), the Schö-Wüeschte (Pretty-Ugly) and the Wüeschte (Ugly). Taking place on both New Year’s Eve and Old New Year’s (according to the old Julian calendar but on January 13), various types of Silvesterchläuse don handmade costumes, and masks and walk around communities within Switzerland’s canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. One happening within Urnäsch is called Urnäsch Silvesterkläuse, in which small groups proceed from house to house as carolers and sing and ring their bells. In turn, they receive small monetary gifts to help cover the cost of their costumes and refreshments.

Photo provided by Germany Tourism

Germany – Knecht Ruprecht

While not quite as spine-chillingly fearsome as Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht is the complete opposite of Jolly Old St. Nick, leaving us to wonder why Santa could have such as a seriously dark  counterpart. First appearing in written sources in the 17th century as a figure in a Nuremberg Christmas procession, Knecht Ruprecht wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood and carries a long staff and a bag of ashes. His attitude toward kids is also tough. According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, he hits the children with his bag of ashes. Other versions of his story has him giving naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks and stones,  or even a switch in their shoes for their parents to hit them with. He is also said to be spotted on the night of December 5 (the day before the feast of Saint Nicholas). You might see him—or try to avoid him—at Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarket, which runs through December 24.

Tagged: Europe, Germany, Italy

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Michele Herrmann

Michele Herrmann

Michele writes about women's travel, destinations, culinary, and cultural topics for various outlets and has ventured as far as Fiji, to date. She also muses her tales on She Is Going Places.
Michele Herrmann

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