Most American four-year-olds can tell you all about beloved Christmas characters like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. But in other countries, talking about Rudolph and his ilk might earn you little more than a blank stare. Here’s a look at some holiday characters who might not be familiar to Americans, but play a big role in celebrations around the world.
1. Zwarte Piet
The Dutch equivalent of Santa, Sinterklaas, rolls into town via steamship from his home in Spain, and he’s always got Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) in tow. Although for years Black Pete was depicted as Santa’s slave, since the 1950s he’s been toned down a bit and is now thought of as Santa’s mischievous helper—a scamp who will also put naughty children in a bag and take them back to Spain. Despite being recast as Santa’s friend or devoted, albeit non-slave, servant, Black Pete still incites quite a bit of controversy, as many Dutch people feel that a subservient character in blackface and an afro wig is more than a little racist.
This terrifying horned monster is part of the Christmas tradition in Austria and other surrounding countries. If children are good, Saint Nicholas brings them toys. If they’re bad, though, they’ve got to face Krampus’ wrath. The clawed, hairy beast is said to punish naughty children by stealing their toys, smacking them with a birch rod, and even tying them in a sack and chucking them into a river. Getting a lump of coal in your stocking doesn’t seem like such a terrible fate in comparison, does it?
In northwestern Germany and in some Pennsylvania Dutch communities, children get visits from the somewhat less intimidating Belsnickel instead of Krampus. Belsnickel, a man covered in head-to-toe fur, sneaks a sock or shoe full of candy into children’s rooms. Like Krampus, though, Belsnickel will put his foot down; if the children have been naughty, they’ll wake up to a shoe full of coal or switches.
4. Le Pere Fouettard
Le Pere Fouettard is another of Saint Nicholas’ enforcers, this time in Eastern France. This bearded, black-robed character carries either a whip or a rod, and while St. Nick hands out toys to the good children, Le Pere Fouettard is said to beat the naughty ones. Even though he may not be as visually terrifying as Krampus, some origin stories for Le Pere Fouettard are pretty grisly. He’s said to be the murderer of three boys who’s now stuck working for St. Nick to atone for his sins.
Naughty children in Iceland have to fear being caught by Gryla, an ogress who lives in a mountain cave but comes out each year to plague bad kids during Christmas. During the 18th century, Gryla was such a terrifying figure—her mythology at the time included eating the bad children, not just scaring them—that a public decree banned the use of Gryla to strike terror in the hearts of the poorly behaved.
6. Ded Moroz
Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”) is the Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus, but he acts just a bit differently from the St. Nick Americans are used to. Ded Moroz carries a magical staff everywhere, and instead of sneaking down chimneys to deposit gifts before disappearing into the night, he actually shows up at New Year parties to give kids their gifts
Ded Moroz had a tough time in the Soviet Union. Between the Russian Revolution and 1937, he didn’t come at all due to a ban on Christmas-like New Year’s traditions. When Joseph Stalin came into power, he ordered that Ded Moroz wear a blue coat so that no one would confuse him with the Western Santa Claus.
7. La Befana
Children in Italy don’t have to worry about Santa, but they definitely want to remain on the good side of Befana. On January 6th each year, Italian kids wake up with the hope that Befana, a shawl-wearing old lady who rides a broomstick, will have come down their chimneys to leave a sock full of candy rather than a lump of coal.
In Basque communities, Olentzero comes to town on Christmas Eve to deliver children’s holiday gifts. Although Olentzero—an overweight man who wears a beret, smokes a pipe, and dresses like a Basque farmer—is now a beloved character who comes bearing gifts, he used to have some violent enforcer-type aspects to his personality; children heard that if they didn’t go to sleep, Olentzero would hurl a sickle down the chimney. The message was clear: go to sleep or Olentzero will come cut your throat.
9. Tio de Nadal
Tio de Nadal is a Catalan character that’s also known as “Caga tio,” or “pooping log.” Starting with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, Catalan families host a tio, which is a small hollow log propped up on two legs with a smiling face painted on one end. Each night the family gives the log a few morsels of food to “eat” and a blanket so it will “stay warm” throughout the evening. On Christmas or Christmas Eve, the family then orders the hollow log to “defecate” small gifts. Family members sing songs and hit the log with sticks in order to speed its “digestion,” and the log gradually drops candies, nuts, and dried fruits that the family shares. When a head of garlic or an onion falls out of the log, all of the treats are finished for the year.