Krampus is a devil-like creature that’s believed to contrast that of Saint Nicholas by punishing children who have acted badly. The beast is said to capture the naughty children in his sack and steal them away to his evil lair. The Krampus traditionally has the physical characteristics of a demon, which is covered in fur with cloven hooves, goat horns atop its head and a pointed tongue that protrudes from its mouth.
Saint Nicholas (or Father Christmas) is the legendary figure of folklore that is said to bring gifts to the homes of children who have remained good and out of trouble. The original Saint Nicholas of Myra was the primary inspiration of Father Christmas, due to being famous for his generosity of giving gifts to the poor. Saint Nicholas has influenced many other versions of similar figures from around the world, like that of Santa Claus, Papa Noel, and Sinterklaas among countless others.
Saint Nicholas is generally depicted as a portly and joyous man with a white beard, spectacles, and red coat and trousers. His coat is usually complete with white, snow-like collars and cuffs, accessorized by a black leather belt and black boots. Typically Saint Nicholas is believed to deliver his presents during the late evening and night hours of December 24th, but it wasn’t always so - the gift date was originally on December 6th, to coincide with Saint Nicholas’ feast day.
Christkind was created to explicitly discourage the figure of Saint Nicholas. Many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the 'Christ Child' and moved the giving date to what is popularly known today as Christmas Eve. Christkind is more regularly celebrated in regions of Austria, Czechia, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, and in certain areas of Hispanic America. Christ Child is depicted as a sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings, symbolizing Jesus as a baby.
FRANCE: Père Noël & Père Fouettard
Papa Noël is the legendary gift-giver of Christmas in France who shares many similarities as that of Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas, however originally were known to be quite different. Like other gift-givers around the world, Père Noël wears a red outfit and also has his workshop located at the North Pole. On Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace, leaving it filled with treats for his donkey Gui. In return for their good behavior and treats, Père Noël leaves small presents like toys, candy or money.
Belsnickel folklore can be found in the Southwestern parts of Germany and in some Pennsylvania Dutch communities. He is a fur-clad, hot-tempered figure who shows up 1-2 weeks before Christmas. Most depictions of Belsnickel show him looking rugged and unkempt with tattered clothing, carrying a stick or switch that he beats the bad children with.
Zwarte Piet (meaning Black Peter) is a legendary character who accompanied Saint Nicholas on his feast day of December 5th (in Netherlands) or December 6th (in Belgium). He joins Saint Nicholas in giving out sweets and presents to all of the good and obedient children. He was originally known as Slave Peter, who was brought on a boat from Madrid, Spain and used to amuse the children. Today, some holiday revelers are found walking the streets and launching candy at passersby; their faces are usually painted black/brown and they wear afro wigs atop their heads with bright red lipstick smeared around upon their lips.
The Yule Lads or Yulemen are thirteen figures from Icelandic folklore who are portrayed as mischievous pranksters who steal and/or harass the population. Each figure arrives and departs a day apart, staying for thirteen days while causing havoc. Each member has their own idea of mischief, such as thieving milk, food or candy, as well as harassing sheep, farm people or making noise by slamming doors. On the opposite side of their antics, they leave small gifts in children’s shoes that are placed outside their windows. However, if you were a bad child, you don't receive gifts or candy - you are more likely to receive a potato.
Befana is a witch-like old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on the Epiphany Eve (night of January 5th). She fills their socks with candy and presents, unless they were bad; then they receive coal or dark candy. Befana is said to be a good housekeeper, sweeping the floor before she leaves. As a respectful offering, the family would leave small glasses of wine and a plate of food for the witch. She is typically portrayed as a broomstick riding elderly woman who wears a black shawl, covered in soot.
Ded Moroz is known as Old Man Frost, a fictional figure who plays a similar role during New Years as that of Santa Claus on Christmas. He brings gifts to children without the same secrecy as Santa, as he delivers the gifts in-person at New Year's Eve parties and celebrations. These in-person visits are usually organized events at schools, however if for some reason a visit is not arranged, then a gift is left under the family’s tree. Similar to most of the world's depictions of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus, Ded Moroz wears a red coat (although, sometimes blue) and has a long white beard. However, he is usually shown wearing a heel-length fur coat, a semi-round fur hat and carries a long magical staff. Unlike any other traditional gift-givers of other cultures around the world, Ded Moroz is commonly seen with his granddaughter and helper, Snegurochka who is depicted as a young women wearing silver-blue robes and a snowflake-like crown.
Baboushchka is an old women who is said to have deliberately misled the three wise-men as to the whereabouts of Bethlehem, so they would never find Jesus. But she lived her life overcome by remorse, so on January 5th it's believed that Babouschka visits the homes of children and leaves presents next to their bed in hopes that one might be that of baby Jesus, so she would be forgiven.
SCANDINAVIA: Joulupukki, Julenissen, & Jultomten
Joulupukki (also known as the Yule Goat) is the Christmas gift giving figure of Finland. He is similar to Santa Claus. However, he is said to live in the mountains of Korvatunturi (Northeastern Finland). The only other differences of Joulupukki and Santa is that he doesn't sneak through the chimney, instead he knocks on the front door during Christmas Eve celebrations, and his reindeer do not fly. Joulupukki was once known as a Pagan creature that looked like a grotesque mixture of a man and a goat, who would frighten children to promote obedience.
Julenissen (Denmark) and Jultomten (Sweden) is a mythical creature who is believed to take care of a farmer's home and children, protecting them from misfortune. Julenissen is usually depicted as a dwarf version of Saint Nicholas. Jultomten is similar to Julenissen, but is depicted even smaller, like that of a gnome.
Santa Claus is one of the most celebrated legendary Christmas figures around the world. He is said to bring presents to the homes of obedient children on Christmas Eve night. Santa Claus is said to live at the North Pole where he has a workshop full of magical elves who create all of the gifts and toys that Santa delivers for Christmas. Santa keeps a naughty and nice list, categorizing the children of the world according to their behavior. Like other cultural beliefs, the naughty children are given coal rather than presents.
On the night of Christmas Eve, children pin up their stockings along the mantle of their fireplace, leave out a tray of cookies and milk for Santa (and sometimes even carrots for the flying reindeer), and are in bed at an early time, so that Santa may visit all of the children in the world, unseen and in one single night. When the good children awake in the morning, they find presents from Santa under their Christmas tree, and their stockings filled with candy and small toys.
There are several other versions of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus that are celebrated throughout the world. Most other versions that weren’t mentioned above are nearly identical in appearance and/or gift giving-style.
(Photo credits - Cover image via www.backgroundpictures.org, Krampus via bodypsalms.blogspot.com, Sinterklaas by Photochiel via Flickr, Fouettard by Michell Zappa, Belsnickel via lifeinlandisvalley.blogspot.com, Zwarte Piet via thetravelingmogridges.wordpress.com, Yule Lads via smileyfolks.blogspot.com, Ded Moroz via mynativebelarus.blogspot.com, Santa Claus via www.topoften.com/top-ten-santa-claus-for-2012/)