1. The Swiss version of Santa has an evil sidekick named Schmutzli.
Schmutzli carries a broom made out of twigs that he uses to beat kids when they’re bad. He’s generally depicted as a terrifying figure clad in dark clothing and makeup. “Schmutzli” is his German name, while Switzerland’s French speakers refer to him as “Pere Fouettard,” which means “The Whipping Father.”
2. In Austria, Bavaria, and other Alpine countries, St. Nick rolls with Krampus.
Krampus is Santa’s scary companion who carries around a basket to use for kidnapping naughty children. In addition to being St. Nicholas’ companion, Krampus has his own holiday, called Krampusnacht, which is celebrated with the Krampuslauf, described by Wikipedia as “a run of celebrants dressed as the beast, often fueled by alcohol.”
Krampus come to represent a kind of anti-Santa in the U.S.; last year, according to NPR, a man named Joseph Ragan organized a Krampus parade in Portland, Oregon, “as a reaction to the way Christmas dominates the winter season.”
“Of all the 10,000 holidays that can be celebrated,” he said, “we just have this one particular version of this one particular holiday really shoved down our throats for months at a time — in the most saccharine form.”
3. In Italy, a woman named La Befana brings kids presents instead of Santa.
According to legend, the Three Kings stopped by La Befana’s house in the Italian countryside on their way to see the baby Jesus. They invited her to come along on their journey, and though she initially refused because she had to cook and clean, she soon changed her mind and ran to catch up with them. Some variations maintain that she’s still chasing after Jesus with gifts, and winds up giving them to other children year after year, while others maintain that she found the child and he granted her the power to deliver presents to kids one night every year.
Of note: If you’re expecting Le Befana, leave her wine instead of milk and cookies.
5. However, Russia also has a less-religious incarnation of Santa, called Ded Moroz, who looks a lot like the U.S.’s Santa Claus.
He’s still got the long white beard and the red outfit, although he’s depicted as being relatively slender. (During the Soviet era, his robes were light blue rather then red.) He travels in a horse-drawn sleigh instead of relying on flying reindeer, and he doesn’t mess with chimneys; instead, Ded Moroz goes door to door delivering gifts (only to the good kids).
Ded Moroz is also accompanied by his beautiful granddaughter, Snegurochka, who helps him distribute presents.
6. Iceland has 13 Santas, known as the “Yule Lads.”
First known as scary descendants of trolls, the Yule Lads are now regarded as merrily mischievous gift-givers. According to legend, they arrive one by one for the 13 days leading up to Christmas; Icelandic children leave their best shoes on the windowsill so the Yule Lads can fill them with small presents. Their names translate to everything from “Bowl-licker” and “Door-slammer” to “Peeper” and “Meat-hook.”
7. In the Netherlands, Santa is depicted with his highly controversial servant, “Black Pete.”
People dress in blackface to represent the character, who helps St. Nicholas hand out gifts to well-behaved kids. Backlash to the tradition’s racist undertones has been steadily growing over the past few years. Jessica Silversmith, the director of the Anti-Discrimination Bureau in Amsterdam, told the AP that while her office used to only receive a couple complaints about “Zwarte Piet” (the character’s name in Dutch) each year, in 2011 that number jumped to over 100. However, some argue, the tradition is deeply entrenched in Dutch culture, with no offense intended.
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