There are as many versions of Santa Claus and his sidekicks as there are cultures that celebrate Yuletide. Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, Jule Nisse, Jouluppukki— these are just a few of the names for which he is known. What may surprise you is that Santa Claus has not always been a jolly ole elf or even humanoid. In fact, he has been depicted as an evil gnome, as well as a goat! And as for his sidekicks, well, they are arguably more interesting than St. Nick. From the Netherlands’ white horse called Schimmel to the donkey of France and the Angels of Czechoslovakia, the companions of St. Nicholas run the gamut from beast to celestial being to human thug, from benevolent helper to scary monster. Whatever their form and demeanor, St. Nick’s companions travel alongside him to help him get the job of gift-giving done. In some cases, they are all about correcting bad behavior.
Many of Santa’s companions are as legendary as St. Nicolas himself due to their outlandish roles and character traits. Some are depicted as walking animals or humans dressed in black wearing an air of bedlam. Most are grounded in European traditions and in many respects, serve to provide the yang to Santa’s yin.
Whereas Santa is almost universally known as the good guy, his companions typically represent the opposite of his benevolent nature, punishing children for bad behavior as opposed to rewarding them for good. They are not necessarily evil as it often seems; rather, they serve an important social role in controlling behavior through the threat of consequence. Known in German as Kinderschreckfigur or child terror figures, they scare the bajeesus out of little kids, promoting good behavior through threat and intimidation. Read more about the many faces of Santa and his curious Christmas companions.
Man dressed as a modern Belsnickel in his travel attire on his way to scare children in the schools in Norwich, New York. December 2012. By Peptobismolman1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.or/w/index.php?curid=29031842
A Yuletide peeping Tom with a penchant for spanking naughty children, Belsnickel is a creepy old man in the woods who dresses in fur and peers into the windows of homes until he is invited in. Once inside, he asks the children if they have been good and if they pray. If they lie when answering him, he whips their bottoms with his switch. If they are honest and tell him they misbehaved, he only whips their knuckles. Belsnickel came to the United States with German immigrants and became a custom in Pennsylvania Dutch communities and other areas of the country with substantial German immigrant populations.
Ded Moroz, also known as Father Frost and Grandfather Frost, is the Slavic equivalent to Santa Claus. He is accompanied by his fairy granddaughter Snegurochka, also known as the Snow Maiden or Snowy. The beautiful companion of Ded Moroz sets him apart from his other European counterparts.
Russia’s official Patron Saint and giver of gifts during the winter was Saint Nicholas. His physical depiction is based on the ancient legendary figure of Russian folklore, Morozko. It is this same legendary figure upon which Ded Moroz derives. According to legend, Morozko was nice to hard-working folks, but did not take kindly to mean, lazy people.
Interestingly, Ded Moroz is tied to Russian political history when he was banished during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Apparently, he was viewed in a religious context as a children’s god, and at the time the Russian government forbade any type of religiosity. Twenty years later, however, he began to appear during New Year’s celebrations with Snegurochka. Together, they showed up on New Year’s Eve to leave presents for children under the fir tree.
It is believed that Ded Moroz resides in a log cabin located in the Taiga forest where three rivers merge in the charming town of Veliky Ustyug in the Vologodsky Region of Northern Russia. According to Russiapedia.com, Ded Moroz spends his summer days there reading letters sent from kids all over the country with their requests for gifts they hope to find under the New Year’s Tree the next January 1st. See Snegurochka.
“As You Meet the New Year, So Will You Spend It”
A Russian tradition for reeling in the New Year is expressed in the title above. To leave or resolve all old debts in the old year and not carry them with you into the New Year, they say to wear brand new clothes in the lucky colors of the year to come. Also, it is believed that any wish made on New Year’s Eve is sure to be fulfilled when done according to tradition. To do so, make a wish as the clock strikes midnight by writing your wish on a piece of paper, burning it in the flame of a candle, mixing the ashes in a glass of champagne and drinking it before the clock stops chiming (http://lastochkafromrussiawithlove.blogspot.com/2009_12_01_archive).
Father Christmas with holly crown and wassail bowl, the bowl now being used for the delivery of children’s presents (1879). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The personification of Christmas, Father Christmas is British in origin. Generally believed to have derived from an old English folkloric tradition that centered around adult merry-making, singing and feasting, Father Christmas was known during Medieval times as Captain Christmas, The Prince of Christmas and the Christmas Lord. The first known English personification of Christmas, however, was in a carol published in the mid 1400s attributed to Richard Smart, who refers to him as Sir Christemas. In the carol, Sir Christemas announces the birth of Jesus and encourages his listeners to drink: “Buvez bien par toute la compagnie, Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell” (Simpson and Roud 2000).
When Puritans took control of the British government in the mid-1640s they made concerted efforts to abolish Christmas and to outlaw its traditional customs. The celebration of Christmas in England was forbidden. During this time, the Pamphlet writers of the Royal Court began to link Father Christmas with the lamentation of the good ole days of merriment and cheer. He was often characterized in a negative light as being popish, sad, and pitiful. Several pamphlets described Christmas as being on trial, such as the anonymously written The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas (1646) and The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas (1658) written by Josiah King. Upon the Restoration in 1660, Josiah King reprinted his 1658 pamphlet with additional material presenting Father Christmas in a better light: “[he] look’t so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like [b]lushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany … the true Emblem of Joy and Innocence” (Wikipedia contributors N.D.).
Father Christmas as a legendary character was maintained throughout the 18th and 19th centuries largely through Christmas folk plays known as mummers plays. Up until Victorian times, Father Christmas had no associations with gift-giving and children, only with adult feasting and merrymaking.
As Victorian Christmases began to focus on family and children, Father Christmas began to change to be consistent with the holiday. It was at this time he began to be a bringer of gifts who descended down the chimney and filled stockings with goodies.
When the American Santa Claus made his appearance in England in the 1850s, Father Christmas began to take on some of his characteristics. By the 1880s the nocturnal bringer of gifts was known as Santa Claus and as Father Christmas. By the twentieth century, any distinction made between the two figures had faded away.
Hans Trapp by Almanach de Wintzenheim – knarf.info. Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Hans von Trotha
Hans von Trotha is a German knight born into the aristocratic family Trotha. He is infamous for his well-known feud with Henry, Abbot of the Order of Benedictine monks at Weissenburg Abbey. During the feud, Hans von Trotha built a damn to cut off the water supply to the lands in question, which he later tore down in response to complaints by the abbot. This resulted in a flood that devastated the town of Weissenburg economically. For eight years, the knight engaged in open warfare against the abbot. When he would not cease from his hostilities even when told to do so by the Emperor, he was summoned to appear before the pope. However, he refused to go in person and instead wrote a letter to the pope in which he professed his faith to the Church but also accused the pope of engaging in unethical and immoral behavior. As a result, von Trotha was excommunicated from the church and following the custom of the day, he suffered an imperial ban. People who fell under the status of an imperial ban were considered legally dead and were subject to being robbed, injured or killed. Anyone who perpetrated a crime against a banned person could do so with impunity.
Following his excommunication and imperial ban, Hans von Trotha became a local legend known as Hans Trapp or the Black Knight (Schwarzer Ritter) in the Palatinate region. Over time he was described as a robber baron and associated with cannibalism, the Devil, and the dark arts. He was even associated with a local legend concerning a nearby spring called the Legend of Jungfernsprung. The most common version of the legend comes from local author, August Becker (1857):
Once a young maiden ventured into the Forest of Dahn to pick berries. When she was far away from home, a man suddenly burst out of the thicket, probably the robber baron, Hans Trapp from Berwartstein Castle. The man clearly intended to rob the virgin of her innocence. So the young maiden gathered up her skirts and took to flight, but the villain came ever closer to her. In her panic, the young lass failed to watch where she was going. All of a sudden she found herself, panting for breath, at the edge of the precipice with the houses of the town far below. Without stopping to think, the young maiden fell over the abyss. And now the miracle happened: because her skirts ballooned out and let her float down gently, she survived the leap entirely unhurt. And ever since, at the spot where her foot landed, a spring has flowed.
In Alsace at the time of Saint Nicholas, Hans Trapp began to appear alongside the saint as his nightmarish sidekick who scared little children into behaving. How this leap came to be made in unknown; but, it appears he was used as a regional substitute for Knecht Ruprecht, who was Saint Nicholas’ usual companion in Germany at that time.
Translates as Baby Jesus, who in the Czech tradition is the one who has been delivering presents during Christmas time for centuries. No one knows what he looks like, and there is some debate as to whether he is the Baby Jesus or an adult Jesus who brings the gifts. He usually comes during Christmas Eve after everyone leaves the room where the Christmas tree is located. While the children wait in their rooms for him to arrive, the parents put gifts under the tree, and when they are finished, they ring a bell and quickly slip out of the room. The children rush into the room hoping to catch a glimpse of Jezšek which they never get, of course, and so he remains relegated to the realm of Christmas mysteries.
Jlasveinarnir (Yule Lads)
In Icelandic folklore, Jlasveinarnir or Yule Lads, or Yulemen, are thirteen trolls who have become the modern day (almost) equivalent of Santa Claus. The Yule Lads are known as everything from pranksters to cannibals; but, mostly they are known as thieves, and most commonly as food thieves. The Yule Lads are traditionally said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla, the Child Eater, and her third husband Leppalúði. Grýla is said to be a monstrous ogre who comes down the mountain thirteen days in advance of Christmas in search of naughty children to put into her cauldron to boil and eat. According to lore, she is only allowed to take naughty children, and if they repent, she must release them. The Yule Lads also descend from the mountain in search of naughty children, but not all at once. Only one comes down the mountain each day— in a specific order—and stays for thirteen days. Each Yule Lad is associated with a specific trait which is reflected in their name, and they are all often depicted with the Yule Cat, the Yuletide beast who eats people who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.
The first Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Stekkjarstaur, whose name has been translated as Sheep-fold Sneaker, Sheep-cote clod, Sheep Pen Clod, Gimpy, Sheep-fold Stick, and Sheep Harasser. He comes down on December 12 and stays until December 25. He loves sheep’s milk but has a hard time getting it due to his peg legs or stiff legs. His specialty is harassing and scaring sheep and stealing them when he can catch one.
The second Yule Lad to descend is Giljagaur, meaning Gully Gawk or Gully Oaf. Prior to the advent of milking machines, he hid in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and skim the milk froth from the pails of milk. He descends on December 13 and returns December 26.
Stúfur, meaning Stubby or Shorty, comes down the mountain on December 14 and stays until December 27. He is abnormally small and steals pans to eat the scraps of food left in them.
Þvörusleikir, meaning Spoon Licker or Ladle Licker, steals Þvörur to lick, a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle used for stirring. He is said to be extremely thin due to malnutrition. He descends from the mountain on December 15 and stays until December 28.
The fifth Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Pottaskefill, meaning Pot Licker or Pot Scraper. He comes on December 16 and stays until the 29th, during which time he busies himself stealing leftovers from pots that have yet to be washed.
Askasleikir, or Bowl Licker, descends from the mountain on December 17 and stays until December 28. He hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their bowl which he then steals, devouring what is left inside and licking it clean.
The seventh Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Hurðaskellir or Door Slammer. As can be expected, he enjoys doing what his name implies—slamming doors, especially at night to keep people wide awake. He arrives on December 18 and returns on December 31.
On December 19th, Skyrgámur, or Skyr Gobbler or Curd Glutton, descends from the mountain. Skyrgámur loves to eat skyr, which is an Icelandic cultured dairy product similar to yogurt. He returns to the mountain on January 1st, presumably after getting his fill of skyr.
The ninth Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Bjúgnakrækir, meaning Sausage Swiper, Sausage Snatcher or Sausage Pilferer. He hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked. In fact, he loves sausages so much he steals them from wherever he can find them. He arrives on December 20th and returns on January 2nd.
Gluggagægir, meaning Window Peeper, peers through windows looking for things to steal such as toys he takes a fancy to. He arrives on December 21 and returns on January 3rd.
Gáttaþefur, meaning Door Sniffer, descends from the mountain on December 22nd and stays until January 4th. He is said to have an enormous nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð or Leaf Bread. Leaf bread is a traditional paper-thin, fried bread decorated with leaf-like patterns that is eaten during the Christmas season. He also loves the smell of cakes and biscuits being baked for Christmas, snatching a few for himself whenever the opportunity arises. Below is a recipe for Icelandic Leaf Bread, the sort Door Sniffer loves to eat.
Laufabrauð – Icelandic Leaf Bread
- 2 lbs flour
- 1/4 teaspoon Baker’s Ammonia (also known as ammonium bicarbonate or hartshorn)
- 1 teaspoon Salt
- 3 pints milk
- Fat for deep frying
Heat the milk just to the boiling point. Sift the flour together with the Baker’s Ammonia and the salt. Stir the milk into the flour mixture and knead into a tough dough. Then, form the dough into a long roll. Cut the roll into pieces and roll out very thin on a well-floured surface. The bread is formed with a round dish and then traditional decorative patterns are carved into the dough with a sharp kitchen knife. If you google the term “Icelandic Leaf Bread” you will find images of the patterns. As each piece is completed, place between linen towels to prevent drying. Deep fry on high heat, decorated side down, until golden-brown. Before the leafbread cools too much, press down on it with a laufabraudshlemmur, a wooden board with a handle to flatten it. Some folks use two wooden cutting boards to achieve the same effect. Serve with butter or margarine. Note that baking soda may be used in place of Baker’s Ammonia, however the latter is known for its effectiveness in baking crispy breads and pastries.
The twelfth Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Ketkrókur, meaning Meat Hook or Meat Snatcher. He arrives on December 23 with a hook and steals meat of all kinds until January 5.
The last Yule Lad to descend from the mountain is Kertasníkir, meaning Candle Stealer. He follows children in order to steal their tallow candles presumably because they are edible. He arrives on December 24th and stays until January 6.
Originally, the Yule Lads were portrayed as being mischievous criminals who enjoyed harassing the population at large. They were depicted as scary creatures; but, in modern times, the Yule Lads have become much more benevolent. They have taken on some of the characteristics of Santa Claus, particularly his manner of dress and giftgiving. Nowadays, little children in Iceland place their shoes in their bedroom windows for thirteen days prior to Christmas. Each night, the Yule Lad that descended from the mountain that day leaves a special gift in the shoe. If, however, the children have been naughty, they get a rotten potato instead of a gift.
Joulupukki is the Finnish name for their Christmas Santa. Literally translated as Yule Goat, this was either an ugly creature of pagan origin that frightened children or an invisible spirit that helped with Yuletide preparations. Now, Yule Goats are available as cute little straw ornaments for the unsuspecting.
In Finland the Yule Goat is the bringer of gifts. In the past, the Jouluppukki roamed the streets on midwinter night creating a scene, begging for beer, telling dirty jokes, and scaring children. They also demanded presents instead of giving them out. By the nineteenth century, the Jouluppukki brought gifts to the upper class, and by the twentieth century, the Jouluppukki had morphed into a Santa lookalike. Sometimes, the Joulupukki is depicted as a goat-man on Christmas Eve. In some parts of Finland today, there is the custom of dressing up as a goat in order to get leftover food after Christmas.
Joulupukki and his wife, Joulumuori (Old Lady Christmas), live and work in Korvatunturi (Ear Mountain), in Lapland. Joulumuori has never been seen and apparently has nothing to do with Christmas. Joulupukki’s assistants, called tonttu or joulutonttu, are human dwarves who don relatively drab attire and sometimes ride goats. Joulupukki differs
from Santa Claus in that he visits people’s homes and hands out gifts during the day when everyone is awake. Traditionally, he rings the doorbell of the front door of the home, and his first question is “Are there any good children here?” See entry Yule Goat.
The Jule Nisse is a mythological creature from Scandinavian folklore typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It is a small being resembling the popular garden gnome, generally described as being no taller than 35 inches, having a long white beard, and wearing a conical knit cap in a bright color, usually red. Although physical descriptions are clear, nissen (plural) are usually invisible to humans and are known to use magic. The nisse is the Norwegian version of the Swedish tomte.
According to tradition, the nisse is an ancestral spirit, believed to be the soul of the first inhabitor of the farm where he resides. As such, he functions as a guardian spirit of the homestead. He lives in the burial mounds on the farm, but may also live inside the home or barn. He is associated with farm animals and has a particular fondness for horses. He often has a favorite horse on the farm that can be easily identified because it is exceptionally healthy and well-cared for. Often its mane and tail are braided. If one of these horses is observed, its braids should never be undone or else misfortune will befall the home.
Nisse should always be treated well so that he will do his job well, help out with chores, and protect the home and family from evil and misfortune. When insulted or ignored, nissen are known to be short tempered and tricksters, driving people crazy, stealing things, and even harming and killing livestock. There are some reports of Nissen actually biting people when they get angry. It is an extremely unfortunate thing to be bitten by a nisse as their bite is said to be poisonous. Healing from a nisse bite can only be accomplished through supernatural means.
Nisse are believed to bring prosperity and abundance to the household due to the work they do for the farmer and family. However, if a farm seems to be doing much better than their neighbors, they may become the target of the rumor mill due to jealousy. People may accuse the farmer of having a nisse who is stealing from them and doing the work of the devil. The resulting gossip can be quite hurtful and damaging to the farmer’s livelihood. A farmer accused being helped by an ungodly being can be shunned by the community, much like it was in the past during the witch craze. In fact, during and after the Christianization of Scandinavia, the nisse and tomte suffered from being demonized. In a famous 14th century decree (Revelationes, book VI, ch. 78), Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi (tomte gods). It was believed that to have a nisse or tomte in your home meant you had to engage in nonChristian rituals to keep them there and that your soul was at risk.
When I lived in Norway as a teenager, we were told to leave a bowl of oatmeal with a pat of butter on top outside for the Jule Nisse on Christmas Eve. This would make him happy and he would leave gifts. This tradition is not unlike the American practice of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa.
Apparently, Christmas is not the only time to leave nisse a bowl of porridge, though. Giving him porridge is seen as a type of offering or payment, perhaps for favors needed. It is believed that if the nisse does not receive his payment, then he will get very angry and become mischievous by doing things like tying cows’ tails together, turning objects upside-down, and smashing things.
In the interest of keeping the Jule Nisse happy, I have provided you with a recipe for his favorite Yuletide porridge.
Jólagrautur – Icelandic Yule Porridge
- 1/2 pint water
- 3 pints milk
- 6 oz rice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 oz raisins
- Cinnamon and sugar
- 1 almond
Heat water to a boil, stir in the rice, and cook for ten minutes. Add the milk to the pot and cook over a low heat for one hour. Add the raisins in the last ten minutes. Add salt to taste. Add milk, sugar, and cinnamon to taste. For a Christmas custom, place a skinned almond in the pot. Whoever finds the almond should receive a small gift.
Farmhand Rupert or Servant Rupert is a companion of Saint Nicholas as described in German folklore. In certain places in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht is an assistant to Saint Nicholas whose job it is to keep a watchful eye on him during his journey. According to German tradition, however, Knecht Ruprecht played a primary role as gift-giver and punisher in the distant past. During Yuletide, he would ask children if they can pray. If so, he gave them apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If not, he either beat them with a bag of ashes or gave them rocks and lumps of coal. In later lore, as a companion of St. Nicholas, well-behaved children received sweets from St. Nicholas while naughty children received coal or stones from Knecht Ruprecht. He may have also left switches in their shoes for their parents to whip them with. In all versions of the lore, Saint Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht are accompanied by a variety of krampuses. Krampus: Krampus is believed to have Pagan origins; though, his exact lineage is unclear. Some suggest he is the son of Hel in Norse mythology while others suggest he is similar to the satyrs and fauns of Greek mythology. The word Krampus originates from the Old High German word for claw (krampen). In German folklore of the Alpine region, Krampus is represented as a sort of Christmas devil complete with horns and cloven hooves. One of the Companions of St. Nicholas found in Eastern European traditions, Krampus wanders the streets in chains and bells punishing children who have misbehaved. He is commonly referred to as the “antiSanta” because he essentially represents the polar opposite of St. Nicholas.
Krampus Night or Krampusnacht occurs on December 5th, which is the eve of the feast of St Nicholas. Krampus is offered Fruit Schnapps or Peppermint Schnapps. While Santa dispenses gifts for the good children, Krampus is the bearer of coal and Ruten bundles. Ruten bundles are birch twigs sometimes painted gold and tied together. Krampus is known to carry the ruten bundles and to periodically swat misbehaving children with one of the twigs. Sometimes, he carries a whip for the same purpose. Krampus presents ruten bundles to families who leave them out as a reminder throughout the year for children to mind their manners and behave themselves.
Le Pre Fouettard (The Whipping Father)
Remember the previous edition of Gumbo Ya Ya #4 that featured the story of St Nicholas, Bringer of Gifts and Reanimator of Corpses? Well this guy, Le Pre Fouttard, meaning Whipping Father, is said to be the horrible butcher who chopped up those three boys. According to the story told in 1150, the butcher lured three seemingly wealthy boys who were on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school. Along with his wife, he killed the children in order to rob them. One gruesome version tells that they drugged the children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stewed them in a barrel. St. Nicholas discovered the crime and resurrected the children. After this, Le Père Fouettard repented and became St. Nick’s partner. A slightly altered version of this story claims that St. Nicholas forced Le Père Fouettard to become his assistant as a punishment for his crimes. He now appears as a sinister figure dressed in black who accompanies Saint Nicolas and whips children who have behaved badly. Creepy.
Odin the Wanderer
Germanic in origin; Odin is a pagan god that rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could apparently fly or leap great distances. I want a horse like that! Seriously though, numerous parallels have been drawn surrounding the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic Peoples prior to their Christianization.
Odin is perhaps the most well-knowngod of Norse mythology who presided over Valhallaand is associated with war, sovereignty, wisdom,magic, shamanism, poetry, and the dead. He is described as a wanderer who took long solitary walks seeking and giving wisdom, and he spoke only in prose. He is equally as well-known for his shamanic journeys, these being documented in the Ynglinga Saga records and the Eddic poem Baldur’s Dreams.
As a god of war, Odin relished in the act over the purpose, and as such, is closely aligned with beserkers, for whom he had a fondness. As a ruler, he engaged in magic and cunning, and was fueled by inspiration, knowledge and the pursuit of power. Odin, along with Freya, is the foremost Divine practitioner of the Germanic magical tradition seidr. Seidr is a woman’s tradition, though many men practiced it also. To do so openly, however, left one open to ridicule and accusations of effeminacy. The fact that Odin openly practiced seidr as a god did not protect him from being subject to such scorn. He was controversial for many reasons and in Pre-Christian Northern Europe, practicing seidr made him appear to be unmanly and unfit to rule by others.
One of Odin’s greatest contributions was the conscious creation of the runes. He is described as having “sacrificed himself to himself” by hanging on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights. This description of sacrifice indicates he died a ritual death in order to receive the power he received, as is customary in shamanic traditions. During this time, he did not eat or drink, and became aware of the runes and the mysteries they contained.
How Odin became associated with Santa Claus or St. Nicholas is based on a few things. First is the obvious appearance of the old man with a long white beard. More importantly however, is the Wild Hunts Odin led in the sky during Yuletide with his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. According to the Poetic Edda, Sleipnir could leap great distances, just like reindeer. Children would leave their boots on the windowsill or by the chimney filled with carrots and hay to feed his magickal horse. This tradition progressed to Odin leaving gifts of nuts, fruits and sweets in their boots when he flew by. As Europe became Christianized, these beliefs became conflated with the Christian Christmas and St. Nicholas tradition, and St. Nicholas was ultimately bestowed with the gift-bringer trait.
Papa Noel is the New Orleans version of Santa Claus. Like other manifestations of Santa, Papa Noel takes on decidedly regional Cajun characteristics. For example, he gets around in a pirogue, a narrow, flat-bottomed boat that can penetrate the deepest swamp, instead of a sleigh. His sleigh is drawn by eight chubby alligators and a red-nosed loup garou, as opposed to eight tiny reindeer led by Rudolf and his glowing red nose. Others say the alligators are just close friends, the loup garou is a distant cousin, and it’s Papa Noel who has the red nose from drinking too much egg nog, Ponche au Lait, and Reindeer beer. Bonfires are lit all down the levees to help guide Papa Noel to the children in the area and they light up the swamp so his alligators can see while delivering all those gifts to the boys and girls along the bayous.
If you would like a red nose from drinking too much of Papa Noel’s eggnog, then try your hand at making this old New Orleans recipe taken from Camille Glenn’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Cookbook.
Papa Noel’s Infamous New Orleans Egg Nog
- 12 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup Jamaica rum
- 2 1/2 cups best quality bourbon
- 3 cups heavy or whipping cream
- 1 cup milk
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream, whipped
- freshly ground nutmeg, for serving
Combine the egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar in a mixing bowl and beat until the mixture is creamy and thick. Add the rum and bourbon and beat thoroughly. Add the cream and milk and mix again. Beat the egg whites until they hold a soft peak. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, beating until the whites hold a stiff peak. Fold them into the yolk mixture. Chill thoroughly until serving time. Pour the eggnog into a chilled punch bowl and gently fold in the whipped cream. Grate nutmeg over the top and serve. Makes about 30 small cups. Consume right away while the egg nog is thick and creamy.
Santa Claus is the Americanized version of St. Nicholas. Santa Claus is said to be a fictional folklore figure who is brings gifts on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or on his feast day, December 6. The main concept of Santa Claus seemed to become mainstay after the publication of the poem A Night Before Christmas in 1823. In this poem he is depicted as a chubby individual with eight tiny reindeer. According to Caitlan Green (2015) from the website, The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas:
The American Santa Claus is generally considered to have been the invention of Washington Irving and other early nineteenth-century New Yorkers, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family. This new Santa Claus seems to have been largely inspired by the Dutch tradition of a gift-giving Sinterklaas, but it always was divergent from this tradition and was increasingly so over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, the American Santa is a largely secular visitor who arrives at Christmas, not the 6 December; who dresses in furs rather than a version of bishop’s robes; who is rotund rather than thin; and who has a team of flying reindeer rather than a flying horse. At first his image was somewhat variable, but Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Illustrated Weekly (1863-6) helped establish a figure who looks fairly close to the modern Santa. This figure was taken up by various advertisers, including Coca- Cola, with the result that he is now the ‘standard’ version of the Christmas visitor and has largely replaced the traditional Father Christmas in England. The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent character became reinforced with its association with charity and philanthropy, particularly organizations such as the Salvation Army. Volunteers dressed as Santa Claus typically became part of fund raising drives to aid needy families at Christmas time. (Green 2015).
Saint Nicholas of Myra
Saint Nicholas is believed to be the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Santa Claus and arguably the most popular saint in all the world—second only to the Virgin Mary. He was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia in the fourth century and died on December 6, 345 or 352. Before he was a saint, Nicolas was wellknown for his generosity and gift giving. It is said he would secretly put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and he would routinely help the hungry and the needy. He was a true philanthropist. Because of his generous nature and penchant for giving gifts, he became the role model for the modern day Santa Claus.
In Gumbo Ya Ya #4, I wrote a feature article all about St. Nicholas, so I refer readers to that article. Following is a small excerpt from that article:
In Nicolas’ time, people were appointed to sainthood by the unanimous consent of the people, typically based on their exceptional deeds, miracles performed, and martyrdom. In addition to those miracles already described, St. Nicolas is known for performing many other miracles. Aside from his skill as reanimator of corpses, he was able to calm stormy seas by blessing the waters, making him patron saint of mariners and fishermen. He became patron to prisoners and lawyers when he personally intervened to prevent three innocent men from being executed. And if that is not enough, he is also said to have multiplied the grain on a ship in sufficient quantities so as to alleviate a widespread famine. According to Le Saux (2005), “A ship was in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicolas invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, be cause the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicolas promised them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing” (Le Saux, 2005). This latter miracle solidified St. Nicolas’ patronage to chemists, bakers, and the hungry. (Alvarado 2013).
The Dutch version of Santa Claus; Sinterklaas is a historical figure with legendary, and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas. He is also known by the Dutch names, De Sint (The Saint), De Goede Sint (The Good Saint), and De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man). Sinterklaas is depicted as an elderly man with long white hair and a long white beard. He wears the iconical red robe and bishop’s hat, carries a gold ceremonial staff and traditionally rides a white horse named Amerigo (in the Netherlands) and Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning Bad Weather Today (in Belgium). Sinterklaas carries The Book of Sinterklaas, a big red book that identifies who has been naughty and who has been nice that year. His sidekick is the controversial Svarte Piet (Black Peter) who dons a black face. (see Svarte Pete).
Snegurochka is an essential part of the Russian New Year’s celebrations and a helper to Father Frost aka Ded Moroz (see entry Ded Moroz). Her origins lie in Slavic pagan beliefs when she was considered to be the daughter of Father Frost and the Snow Queen. In modern times, she is considered to be the granddaughter of Father Frost as opposed to the daughter. Traditionally, Snegurochka wore white clothes and a silver crown adorned with pearls.
According to another Russian fairytale, she was made out of snow by an old man and woman who regretted not being able to have children:
In winter they made a girl out of snow. The snow maiden came alive and became the daughter they never had. They called her Snegurochka. But when the summer sun began to warm the land, the girl became very sad.
One day she went into the woods with a group of village girls to pick flowers. It began to get dark and the girls made a fire and began playfully jumping over the flames. Snegurochka also jumped, but suddenly she melted and turned into a white cloud.
In some parts of Russia, there remains an ancient tradition based on her lore and the transition from winter to spring that consists of drowning a straw figure in the river or burning it on the bonfire to dispel the winter.
Whatever her true origins are, Snegurochka is always depicted as extraordinarily beautiful, with snow white skin, sky-blue eyes, and cherry red lips. She is forever young, always smiling, and travels with Father Frost on a horse-drawn sled to visit children and hand out presents. She often acts as a mediator between the children and Father Frost. Originally, Snegurochka is said to reside deep in the forest. Today, she is said to reside in the Russian city of Veliky Ustug. She continues to be depicted as the most beautiful of all Russian folk characters. She wears blue, red, white or silver and her crown is sometimes replaced by fur-edged embroidered cap (Russiapedia.com). A search on Pinterest reveals some of the most strikingly beautiful art dolls constructed in her likeness I have ever seen. See Ded Moroz.
Svarte Piet (Black Peter)
The sidekick to the Dutch Santa Claus, Sinterklaas. Svarte Piet is depicted in the controversial black face giving rise to current accusations of a racist tradition. A number of reasons are given for his black face, however, that reportedly have nothing to do with race: 1) it is said he has a black face due to the soot in the chimneys he crawls in and out of in order to deliver presents to children for Sinterklaas, 2) it disguises the true identity of the person playing the part, and 3) traditionally Zwarte Piet is said to be a Moor from Spain. Nevertheless, the figure of Zwarte Piet is considered by some to be racist in today’s world of political correctness and/or institutional racism. As such, holiday traditions of Sinterklaas and Svarte Piet have been the subject of numerous protests and debates.
Like St. Nicholas and Krampus, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are typically depicted carrying a bag which contains candy and presents for nice children. Svarte Piet tosses the candy about, supposedly reminiscent of the legend of St. Nicholas when he threw bags of gold through the windows of three girls in order to save them from a life of prostitution. Sinterklaas rides his white-grey horse over the rooftops at night, delivering gifts through the chimney via Svarte Piet to the well-behaved children. Svarte Piet carries a chimney sweep’s broom made of willow branches for spanking naughty children and a jute bag for kidnapping them and taking them back to Spain. See Sinterklaas.
In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas or Svaty Mikulš is accompanied by the Cert (Devil) and Andel (Angel). Angels lower Svaty Mikuláš down from heaven on a heavy golden cord with a basket of apples, nuts, and candies. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day—December 5—a procession marking the beginning of the Christmas season is formed by Svaty Mikulš, an Angel and the Devil. Svaty Mikulš is there to give gifts to the children, the Devil is there to take the naughty children away, and the angel is there to protect the children from the Devil. According to the website stnicholascenter.org:
The streets are filled with devils rattling chains, St. Nicholases with white cotton beards, long robes and bishops’ staffs, and angels with paper wings on their way to visit small children in their homes. Traditionally, St. Nicholas quizzed children on the prayer-book and the Bible. Today, however, the questions are mostly about the previous year’s behavior. The angel writes a record for each child in a large book and the children sing or say a poem to the saint. The devil rattles his chains, threatening to carry bad children off, but the angel, with a gold star on her forehead and dressed in a white gown, protects the children. Good children receive stockings filled with tangerines, nuts, chocolates, and small gifts. It is said that bad children get old potatoes or coal in theirs. Parents and other relatives also give a St. Nicholas gift, which may be hidden so children must hunt to find it. After the children’s treats, St. Nicholas shares a toast with the parents. (stnicholascenter.org).
See Jule Nissen.
The Icelandic Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur, is a character from Icelandic folklore believed to be traced back to the 19th century making it a relatively new aspect of Scandinavian lore. The Yule Cat is also known as the house pet of the troll Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads.
Depicted as a huge, vicious cat who roams the winter countryside around Christmas time, it is said that people who do not receive new clothes for Christmas are destined to become offerings for the Yule Cat. This belief was used as an incentive by farmers to ensure their workers finished processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Those that worked hard were rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not got nothing except the expectation of being consumed by the monstrous kitty beast. The Yule Cat as man-eating beast was popularized in part by the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn.
The Yule Goat is one of the oldest Scandinavian and Northern European Yule and Christmas symbols. In Finland, he is called Jouluppukki. Pagan in origin, one could argue the Yule Goat is the most popular of the animals associated with Yule.
The origin of the Yule Goat is suggested to be in its association with the Norse god Thor who rode through the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. It has also been suggested its origins lie in the old Scandinavian agricultural practice of bundling the last sheaf of corn from the harvest. The bundled sheaf was attributed with magical properties as the spirit of the harvest and was saved for Yule celebrations. Among other names, the bundled sheaf was called julbocken (the Yule goat).
Traditions associated with the Yule Goat varied according to region, though there were similarities among cultures. In Finland, the Yule Goat was a scary creature that demanded gifts from people.
During the 19th century, however, its role shifted towards becoming a gift-giver when men in the family started dressing up as the Yule Goat. Prior to this time, youths would go from house to house during Christmas time to perform small plays or sing Yule Goat songs, with one youth in the group dressed up as the Yule Goat. Another popular tradition was to sneak inside a neighbor’s house and place a Yule Goat there (presumably one made of straw) without being noticed. That family in turn, if the prank was successful, had to get rid of the Yule Goat in a similar fashion. The Yule Goat tradition was eventually replaced with the Jultomte and Julenisse (Santa Claus) at the end of the 19th century
Today, the Yule Goat is best known as a Christmas ornament made out of straw and bound with red ribbons. Large versions of this figure are frequently constructed in towns around Christmas time and are often set on fire. The Gävle goat was the first of these goats, and remains the most famous Yule Goat as well as the most burnt down. See Joulupukki.
*This article is excerpted from Gumbo Ya Ya Krampus-Santa Holiday Issue.
Alvarado, Denise. “Saint Nicolas, Bringer of Gifts and Reanimator of Corpses.” Gumbo Ya Ya #4, Creole Moon Publications. 2013. Print.
Green, Caitlin. “America and the Creation of Santa Claus: A Guide.” The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. Caitlin Green. 2015. Web. 23 November 2015.
King, Josiah. The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, together with his clearing by the Jury, at the Assizes held at the town of Difference, in the county of Discontent. London: H Brome, T Basset and J Wright. 1678. The online transcript is from a later reprinting of 1686.
Of Russian Origin: Ded Moroz, Russiapedia. Autonomous Nonprofit Organization. 2005-2011. Web. 23 November 2015.
Simpson, Jacqueline; Roud, Steve A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.
“Czech Republic.” St. Nicholas. Stnicholascenter. org. Web. Web. 23 November 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Father Christmas.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 25 Dec. 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. ” N i s s e (folklore).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 23 Dec. 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Yule Goat.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Yule Lads.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.