Think Santa Claus has the monopoly on supernatural Christmas gift-giving? Coca-Cola may want us to think so, but there’s a pantheon of other beings who surface during the Yuletide season. And some of them aren’t quite as benevolent as the jolly old man in red. So before you leave out a carrot and mince pie on Christmas Eve this year, consider who else may be paying a visit…
Pre-empting Santa by a couple of weeks, Belsnickel is a figure from Germanic folklore. Often depicted as a raggedy character, he’ll emerge from the woods dressed in dingy furs and wearing a devilish-looking mask. He will often pose questions or riddles, rewarding children who get them right with sweets, whilst punishing those who get them wrong with a smart lick of his hazel switch. His appearance serves as a non-too-subtle reminder that there is only a short time for behaviour to improve before Santa’s visit on Christmas Eve.
Some folktales hold Belsnickel to possess a darker streak: sometimes he would kidnap especially naughty children and steal them away to the woods, where they would be given one last chance to redeem themselves by performing tasks at Belsnickel’s whim. Occasionally, they were never to be seen again. Other tales invest some supernatural power, including the knack of slipping through keyholes in order to leave gifts.
In Russia, Grandfather Frost – or Ded Moroz – relieves Santa for gift-giving duties. Nowadays, old Ded has become more Westernised in line with the American Santa figure, but his roots lie with decidedly older and more esoteric beings. The earliest tales portray him as a powerful and malign sorcerer, inheriting traits from old Slavic gods of the winter. He would freeze children and stuff them in his sack – parents would then have to appease him with presents to ransom their little ones.
Today’s more benevolent incarnation arrived in the Soviet era, where a gift-giving figure was approved as an avatar for the Communist alternative to Christmas. Old and bearded, Grandfather Frost appears dressed in trimmed blue rather than red, carries a magical staff, and flies in a sleigh drawn by the finest stallions – pictured in contemporary images racing Soviet rockets through space.
Unlike Santa, Ded is more often than not accompanied by a female companion. His granddaughter, Snegurochka – the Snow Maiden – appears as an attractive young girl in slivery robes and a fur trim cap. The icy moniker and frosty attire are now all that remains of the traits passed down from the winter gods of old.
Unlike the rest of Santa’s helpers, Krampus appears only to punish naughty children. A Christmas demon, Krampus appears as a bestial, satyr-like creature, with cloven hooves, horns, and a lolling tongue. Sometimes he appears wearing chains, bells, or else carrying a barrel for stealing away misbehaving children. These are then eaten, or drowned, or simply taken straight to Hell. Where he appears in Christian tradition, he is as the devil, chained into submission and enslaved to work for St Nicholas. But Krampus also has an independent Pagan character and a devoted following especially in Alpine countries where his legend has its roots.
Krampusnacht is celebrated on December 5th, the night before the feast day of St Nicholas, a traditional nightmare before Christmas that unfolds as a Halloween for adults. Young men will often dress up in fiendish costume, running amok in the streets as a Krampuslaufen (tour or run), taunting young women and generally causing drink-fuelled mischief. The customary method to stave off their attention is by the somewhat dubious act of offering more alcohol. This tradition is also enjoying something of a revival in the USA, with the accompanying Perchtenlaufen being the female equivalent.
Jultomten and Julbock
In Scandinavian countries some folklore holds that each dwelling is haunted by its own fairy familiar – a small nisse, or tomte – that helps its adopted family with secretive tasks (see Harry Potter’s house elves). Jultomten is a Yuletide variant, known to rove from home to home, checking up on children and leaving presents in his passing. Small, elfin, with four fingers, and eyes that glow in the dark, Jultomten will cast his protection over a household providing there is a bowl of porridge left out for his dinner. Forget this welcome, and you may suffer from the gnome’s trickster nature: livestock may fall ill, or misfortune befall the family. Jultomten increasingly took on features of the ever popular Santa Claus as his influence spread from the USA and southern Europe.
Jultomten is accompanied by his companion Julbock – the Yule Goat – who pulls his sled laden with gifts. The Julbock is in fact far older than Jultomten, his lineage tracing back to pre-Christian traditions, where the last sheaf of corn from the harvest was shaped into a goat figurine, believed to possess the spirit of Yule and a symbol of good luck for the new year. Throughout history his role has changed, becoming at times a trickster spirit – a man-sized goat figure wassailing at people’s houses – or another form of the devil. Today the image of a straw goat is still a popular seasonal icon.
In Italy the eve of Epiphany on January 5th is the time when the witch-figure Befana flies forth on her broomstick. Children across Italy are gifted with toys and sweets (caramelle) if they have been good, or coal and twigs (carbone), if they have not. Befana is also known to sweep out the house with her broomstick: children know well not to enter a room where they can hear the swish of a broom on Epiphany Eve. Christian traditions tell of when Befana was asked by the questing magi to join them in their journey to honour the newborn Jesus. She refused, but later regretted her decision. She then set off on her own quest for the infant Christ, but failed to find him. In penance, or perhaps because she is still searching, Befana visits the homes of every child in Italy, entering through the chimney in order to leave gifts. She is depicted in the fashion of the crone archetype, usually covered in soot.
Befana’s legend is thought to extend further back to the ancient solstice feast of Saturnalia, and is possibly linked to the Roman goddess Strenua, who presided over the giving of new year’s gifts during this time. Other theories link Befana to another Italian tradition of burning a witch effigy – the Giubiana – on a pyre to welcome in the new year, which itself is thought to have Celtic origins. The passing of the witch represents the death of the old year, and the spirit of hope for the new.
An edition of this article first appeared at StudentCom on 17th December 2013.