Clutch your mistletoe close (but don’t eat it), light some candles, and wrap yourself in that ugly Christmas sweater, my friends, because things are about to get very real in Santaland.
We all know the jolly, benevolent, red-cheeked Santa Claus, who leaves us beautifully wrapped gifts in exchange for cookies and milk. It’s a lovely tale, and one I pretended to believe in long after it was ruined for me by a mean girl during third-grade lunch (forgive, but never forget).
Here is the darker side of Santa, that many non-Americans allow to reign as part of their national story time fabric:
1. Greece Has Nikolaos The Wonderworker
It all begins with St. Nick. Before we had Santa, before Kris Kringle, before Krampus too, there was St. Nick. In the 4th century, the Greek Christian saint and Bishop Nikolaos of Myra was known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker in what is now modern-day Turkey.
His penchant for secret gift-giving (such as placing coins in the shoes of those that were left out) began when his wealthy parents died, and he obeyed Jesus’s instructions to “sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” He gave away his entire inheritance and embodied that credo as a life motto.
He is the patron saint of beggars, students, sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, and children. According to The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas, St. Nick’s most famous handiwork was when he heard of a poor father who could not pay the dowry for his three daughters, which back then meant they would never be married and thus forced to prostitute themselves. St. Nick took it upon himself to secretly leave three purses full of gold coins in their house, rather than “humiliating” the father with charity.
2. Controversy In Holland
The Dutch perhaps know more about clinging to a tradition despite its veracity or cultural acceptability than anyone. Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) is the companion to Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa), whose story has eroded into nonsense as time has shown its racist roots.
As the story goes, Zwarte Piet is a Moorish man from Spain, which is why when he first appeared in an 1850s children’s book, he was black with curly hair and red lips. His job is to accompany Sinterklaas in the weeks leading up to December 6th, give candy to children, and amuse them in various ways.
Because of the recent controversy with this story (which involves white Dutch in blackface dressing as Zwarte Piet in parades and various holiday affairs), the Dutch’s new story is that he’s black because he came down a chimney covered in soot – though, conveniently, just his face. It’s a fascinating case of the unwillingness to let go of tradition AND commercialism.
3. Italy Celebrates Epiphany Eve
The Feast of the Epiphany is a major celebration in über-Catholic Italy, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas when the three wise men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for baby Jesus.
On Epiphany Eve (January 5th), an elderly woman on a broomstick named Befana visits all the children of Italy and fills their stockings with gifts and candy if they’re good. And if they’re cattivo (bad)? A lump of coal for them, or in rural Sicily, a stick!
Because Befana is such a good housekeeper (her mode of transport is a cleaning tool, after all!), she is known to sweep up the house before she leaves, which is also said to be a metaphoric sweeping of all the family’s problems of the year.
According to legend, the wise men stopped at Befana’s home and invited her to come visit the baby Jesus with them, but she declined because she had too much housework to do. Later that night, she changed her mind and searched for the manger, bearing gifts that were intended for her child who had died, but it was too late, and she never found the manger. She has been traversing the world on her broom ever since, bearing gifts for children.
In typical Italian fashion, the snack left out for Befana is wine over milk, and a plate of regional specialties over the more banal cookie plate.
4. Germany Has Their Own 'Anti-Santa’
The most disturbing of all the Christmas tales, perhaps, is Germany’s Krampus, otherwise known as the evil “Anti-Santa.” You may know it from the recently released movie, but the story dates back to pre-Christian times while the origin of this hooved, horned terror remains unknown.
The terrifying yin to Santa’s yang, Krampus punishes the children who weren’t good enough to receive Santa’s gifts. Despite public debate regarding whether or not Krampus is appropriate for children, it’s experienced a resurgence recently in Germany and Austria.
Krampus stalks the streets on December 5th, the eve of the decidedly more benevolent St. Nicholas, and it is customary to offer Krampus a schnapps – a favor that he returns with coal.
5. Catalonia, Spain Has Their Poo Log
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? You tell me, Catalans. For their Christmas icon of choice is the Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log), which is more commonly referred to as Caga Tió (Poo log). Yes, you read that right. This hollow wooden log is anthropomorphized with a painted on face and a red hat reminiscent of the traditional Catalan barretina stocking cap.
Beginning on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, children feed the log a little bit of food each day so come Christmas Day when the log is fed to the fire, it literally defecates gifts.
Because most modern homes no longer boast fireplaces, the new tradition is to have children go to another part of the house to pray for presents, which gives parents time to put small gifts under a blanket by the log. When they return, the children sing the Caga Tió song while beating the log with a stick until it “defecates” its gifts.
Curious about the song? It goes a little something like this:
Shit, log! Shit nougats, hazelnuts, and mató cheese, if you don’t shit well, I’ll hit you with a stick, shit, log!
Guessing a gentle GI specialist is hard to come by in Catalonia.
6. Wales: Will Sing (And Sing Again) For Booze
Betwixt Christmas and New Years, Welsh men ride a dead horse around town and sing. On their wassailing adventures, men dress up a horse skull with glass eyes, stick a pole into the jaw, and put a gray cloth over it to render the folklore hobby horse figure “Mari Lwyd,” or “Gray Mare.” When the Mari Lwyd party arrives at a bar or a house at which they would like to drink, they sing songs in order to enter.
The people inside are supposed to decline the request, and a counter-song is proposed. Once inside, a “pwnco” begins, which is when the Mari Lwyd party insults the partygoers in rhyme, which is retorted by a rhymed interlude from the partygoers. This goes on until a group is bested, and all parties are sufficiently drunk enough to move on to the next house in need of a cheeky, utterly sauced serenade.