Most European kids believe in Santa Claus, too, whether they call him Father Christmas, Pere Noël, or St. Nick. But they also await the arrival of their own traditional gift-bringers. Meet some of the more colorful visitors calling at European homes this winter...
Gryla & the Yule Lads
Grýla og Jólasveinarnir
Each night for 13 days before Christmas, children in Iceland are visited by one of the troll Gryla’s 13 mischievous sons. They leave gifts in your shoes if you’ve been good, and rotten potatoes if you’ve been bad. They might stop to harass your sheep or steal your spoons, too, but what do you expect from trolls?
Martin Luther tried to promote the idea that Christmas gifts were delivered by Baby Jesus himself instead of the vaguely idolatrous St. Nick. Over time that evolved into an angel, now often portrayed as a woman with flowing blonde hair. (Santa still stops by, too.)
The last of the jentillak, a mythical race of giants from the Pyrenees Mountains, Olentzero works as a charcoal maker when he’s not delivering gifts. That explains his Basque peasant costume. On Christmas Eve, children carry effigies of Olentzero through the streets of Basque cities, begging for candy.
Krampus & Belsnickel
Something about Germany’s embodiments of the dark side of Santa’s bargain - not just presents
for the nice, but punishment for the naughty - has captured American imaginations, too. The switch-swinging woodsman Belsnickel was portrayed in an episode of The Office, and the demonic tormentor Krampus gets top billing in a new, not terribly authentic horror film.
Italian kids get presents from Babbo Natale, as they call Santa Claus, on Christmas. But a couple of weeks later, the kindly old witch La Befana flies from house to house for another round of gifts in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).
Ded Moroz, Дед Мороз
A winter wizard figure from pre-Christian Slavic mythology, Grandfather Frost was originally suppressed by the Soviet government - then promoted as a secular, non-Western alternative to Santa Claus. He’s accompanied by his granddaughter and helper, Snegurochka (“snow maiden”).
SCANDINAVIA & FINLAND
The Yule Goat
In some Northern European regions, the Yule Goat was traditionally St. Nick’s steed. In others, it brought the gifts itself. And in Finland, it has turned into Santa Claus, whose Finnish name (Jouloupukki) literally means “yule goat”. Nowadays, it’s most often seen as an ornament or decoration, typically made of straw.