5 Most Unusual Christmas Characters around the World
Ah December, the awaited and final month of the calendar. It’s finally getting its act together and bothering to show-up, exciting all the droopy work-slaves waiting for their share of time-off crumbs. It may be just tinnitus but I can hear the call to get ready for the Christmas holidays – time to switch my gears into the festive season.
I am always curious about people’s traditions and customs. Nothing tickles my curiosity more than seeing the shopping centres & front yards festooned with decorations and lights. There are the religious themes; a baby Jesus and the accompanying wise men. Then there are the Western secular characters; an obese Santa, some jetpack-strapped reindeer and the brood of abducted midgets (better known as elves) bound by servitude to obey their bearded master. Of course there are those homes that stick anything that glows on their front porch letting NASA astronauts know they exist.
I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the way the Western secular traditions emerged and evolved over the centuries. For example the origins of the plump & jolly Santa Claus deriving from the 4th century scraggy figure – Saint Nicholas, who has various apocryphal stories attached to him of generosity and secretive gift giving.
What I was more interested in learning about this year are the other Christmas traditions around the globe, especially the myriad of characters that have developed over the years in different countries and regions of the world. Oh boy, there are some eye-poppers. Anyone who actively derides their neighbours for their blow-up Santas will be glad they don’t have a Krampus (see below) greeting them across the fence in the morning.
I thought I would share the most unusual I came across.
5. Knecht Ruprecht
Before I tell you who Knecht Reprecht, you need a little filler. Our friends in Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland have a version of gift giving in which Saint Nicolas does the dirty work that Santa took over a while back in the Western countries. There is more in common with Santa than with the original Saint Nicolas but at least he still has his name-badge. There is also the little difference of timing. The kids in those regions get their presents a good 20 days earlier, on the 6th of December. That is primarily because the Catholic feast day for St Nicolas falls on that date. It would seem only appropriate for the man to shows up to his day with some presents perhaps as a thank you.
But who is Knecht Ruprecht? Knecht Ruprecht can be translated as Servant Rupert. He is the (voluntary?) companion of St Nicolas and shares some similarities in appearance. Both men sport a healthy bikie beard and are decked out in robes of uncanny likeness, probably from the same stylist. Unlike St Nick, Knecht Ruprecht usually dishes out the dud gifts i.e. coal to those kids who have been misbehaving. The two show up together and play the good-cop-bad-cop routine, frightening and rewarding the little Günter’s and Helga’s on their behaviour.
Perhaps Knecht Ruprecht is nothing more than the invented alter ego of St Nick. The Tyler Durden phenomena, serving as a mechanism of escapism from the nightmarish task of showering little runts with gifts regardless of their behaviour. In any case the twix-duo is better than one Santa.
Oh yes, the previously mentioned Krampus. Another, more hairier, companion of St Nicholas. If you ask me the guy is hanging out with the wrong crowd, or perhaps he is the modern equivalent of truckies who will pick up any drifter on their long journeys.
The Krampus tradition is usually found in the Alpine countries of Europe where young men dress up as this demon-like creature and frighten misbehaving children or perhaps any children.
The previously mentioned contrast between the good-child gift giver and the bad-child punisher is taken to an extreme with Krampus. He is the Knecht Ruprecht on steroids. Not only will this hellish monster bring you a lump of coal, but he will also rip out your soul and eat it in front of you.
3. Zwarte Piet
Traveling North towards Netherlands and Belgium, we find ourselves once again with the re-occurring theme of St Nicholas visiting with a companion of his. No it’s not his evil twin from an alternate universe, or a ghoulish beast draped in goat skins, rather we meet Zwarte Piet, literally translated as ‘Black Pete’. Sparing no coal for gifts instead the Zwarte Piet traditions have him covered in the stuff or some other blackish tar-like material.
He is the real-life golliwogg – a politically incorrect relic of the old colonial racist past that is just too good to scrap for our Northern European friends. Dressed in jester-like clothing and acting as a babbling sidekick, Zwarte Piet amuses and entertains kids whilst St Nicholas does his usual gift giving routine.
Sometimes there is a Zwarte Piet for every role. Sounds familiar? It’s the elf equavelent for the Netherlands.
I wonder if the folks in those countries put up similar displays on their front lawn like those Santas around here. I can just see the jaw-dropping reactions from American tourists who see an effigy type of figure of Zwarte Piet strewn in the yard.
2. Ded Maroz
Living in a post-Soviet Union Georgia I am familiar with the following unique Russian version of the well known present bearer. ‘Ded Maroz’, translated Grandfather Front, is the Santa of the Ruski’s.
This bearded wizard-man is not to be underestimated by the Western audience. In a cage death-match with his counterpart Santa Claus, Ded Maroz would make easy work of the jolly diabetic. To begin with Ded Maroz is pimped out in a long Russian style coat encrusted with elaborate jewelry and patterns, preparing him for the Russian Winters that would leave any imitator with a few less frost-bitten fingers and frozen reindeer.
A magic staff accompanies him on every trips. Not sure what powers the staff is said to hold, but at least he can clobber anyone on the head with it.
What’s that, Santa can only wear red? Haha .. amatuer. Ded Maroz can rock up to any party in hot icy-blue, or if he feels like it gold or silver.
There is no fooling around with wacky companions to assist him. Like a mafia don, family is important. That’s why Ded Maroz is the only one who takes his granddaughter, a beautiful damsel to help meet the children.
If you are a child in Russia, don’t expect the presents on the 6th or even the 25thof December. Ded Maroz operates
under his own time. Come New Years Eve a Russian child should expect an announced visit from the man. There is none of this pussyfooting and making secret visits through the chimney while everyone is fast asleep. The guy barges in the front door and demands to see the children. You better hope the children have been good, as Ded Maroz doesn’t outsource his punishments to his underlings, rather he meters out his own, with a frosty hand of justice.
1. La Befana
A bearded old man giving gifts? [In Donnie Brasco’s voice] Forget about it! The Italians prefer a female in the role. ‘Befana’ a witch that comes around on the eve of January the 5th and rewards well behaved children with candy and misbehaved children with coal and onions.
There is a bunch of stories attached to the character. One legend goes that the three magi (wise men) stayed at her house when they were traveling to see baby Jesus and invited her to come along. She was too busy with house work so declined. Later realizing that she is a party pooper decides to find the baby Jesus by her self. So for some reason every year she goes too all the children’s houses and gives them sweets. Did I mention she has a broom? I guess you need one if you are going to clean your house so much. But she can also use it to fly.
She must have learned a lesson or two from Santa as the chimney is also her preferred entrance to the private residence.