For many celebrating Christmas, the season evokes images of Santa Claus delivering packages to well-behaved children with the help of his flying reindeer and toy-making elves. But while Santa is often the main character, numerous figures across the globe — some more frightening than others — are known for their holiday antics.

Danille Christensen, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture, breaks down the stories of some of these mythical beings.

Q. Santa Claus rewards good behavior, while Germany’s Krampus, a horned figure who is well known in pop-culture, punishes bad behavior.  How many of these legends are tied to disciplining children?

Historically, a single legendary figure often gives rewards and punishments. In the United States today, Belsnickel [a bad-tempered, fur-clad figure] and Santa bring presents and leave lumps of coal for Christmas. Epiphany’s La Befana [often portrayed as a broom-riding witch] in Italy also takes note of the naughty and nice.

In many places, punishment has been offloaded from the character of St. Nicholas and put upon a frightening, criminal, or asocial companion that beats or abducts naughty children. For instance, in parts of France the black-robed, bearded Père Fouettard is said to have been a butcher who murdered three boys. St. Nicholas resurrected the boys, and now Père Fouettard accompanies him, scaring other children “straight” as a way to atone. These figures reinforce binaries of good versus evil and pure versus dirty —  sometimes in manifestly racist ways, as with Zwarte Piet [Black Peter] in the Netherlands.

A woman, Danille Christensen, wearing a black and white wool coat and red scarf stands in front of a Hokie Stone building, smiling.
Danille Christensen is an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Q. Other figures seem connected with winter and cold. What are they?

Old Man Winter and the Slavic Ded Moroz [Grandfather Frost] exist alongside legendary females like Grýla. In the lore of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, she is a multi-horn-tailed ogress who personifies extreme weather and darkness. Various accounts depict her sweeping down from a mountain cave to snatch and stew naughty children. Eventually, she became linked to Christmas.

In the 19th century, when romantic nationalism spread across Europe and it became the rage to document, invent, and popularize distinctive vernacular traditions, Grýla also became associated with the 13 Yule Lads – troublemakers who slam doors, steal food, and eat candles – and Jólakötturinn, the gigantic cat that enforces customs of getting new clothing during Yuletide. The Scandinavian Yule goat is another seasonal animal, who can be either a frightening other-worldly surveillor or a mischievous human visitor.

The histories of these magical figures are convoluted; variations and reinterpretations abound, influenced by local circumstances and media coverage. Many localized traditions are being strengthened or revived around the world, as people work to resist the ubiquity of Santa Claus – a quite recent addition to the holiday pantheon, and one inextricably intertwined with 19th-century American literature and 20th-century commerce.

Q. Who are some of the more obscure holiday figures around the world?

Two Christmastime objects from Catalonia often raise eyebrows: the Tió de Nadal, a “pooping” log with a painted face and stick legs, and El Caganer, a defecating figurine that’s placed in nativity scenes. Both wear the barretina [an iconic Catalan hat] and are claimed as distinctively Catalan. These scatological figures resonate with other tricksters whose pranks and “earthy” actions humble the mighty and start conversations about desired behaviors.

Tió de Nadal encourages nurturing care and reminds children of eventual obligations to reciprocate. The log appears on Dec. 8, a feast day that honors expectant mother Mary. As Christmas approaches, children cover it with a blanket and nightly “feed” it treats, only to find empty wrappers or fruit peels – or sometimes, a bigger log – come morning. On Christmas Eve, they sing a song that commands the log to “give back” by depositing nuts, cheese, and other small presents. Gifts appear under the blanket, placed there by parents when children leave the room to pray or to “warm up” the sticks they use to hit the log during the song. Bigger gifts are brought by the Three Kings on Jan. 6.

El Caganer, who emerged in the late 17th century, reflects a Baroque emphasis on realistic everyday scenes. Some say the pooping peasant represents the thrifty, hardworking character of Catalans, or they link him to fertile land and luck. Caganers also take the shape of celebrities and politicians; they are a reminder of human vulnerability and folly. Parents often hide him around the house for children to find.

Q. What is it about winter that seems to bring magic to life?

Holidays often align with nature’s milestones. Mid-winter celebrations in the northern hemisphere recognize the shortest days of the year, using feasting and fire to inspire hope that brighter days are ahead. Christmas and solstice traditions tend to focus on youth and the future, and gifting underscores the sense of positive anticipation.

In some cultures, extraordinary generosity is linked to legendary historical figures, such as Hāshim [leader of Mecca] or Mansa Musa [emperor of Mali]. In the northern hemisphere and areas colonized by Europeans, gifting is often steeped in magic. Historical figures elevated to sainthood [ Lucy/Lucia, Nicholas, Basil], baby Jesus’s emissary [das Christkind] or visitors [Los Tres Reyes Magos], and even the child Himself [Gesù bambino] bestow tangible gifts in Christian practice; Santa is a secular but still magical extension.

This reliance on extra-human aid, or fear of forces beyond human control, and adhering to social norms is partly explained by scarcity. People and communities in the far north are particularly vulnerable between November and February. Food, warmth, and light are precious, and it’s useful if everyone plays by the rules. But winter is also an excellent time for storytelling and imaginative play, given time spent together indoors.

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