What?! There’s someone else aside from Santa? The most popular character during the holidays is Santa Claus. The jolly man in the red suit is known all over the globe as the man who knows when you have been naughty or nice. But apart from Santa, there are other popular characters that pop up during this festive time. Jolly St. Nick (the basis for the man in red, white and black, Santa Claus) shares the limelight with a few good and not so good characters this season. It’s time to find out who’s out during the Yuletide season.
Yes, the devil is a popular character during Christmas. Surprising, huh? Not for the people of Guatemala. The most popular Christmas tradition involves toasting the devil into smithereens. After spending years hiding under beds or in piled up junk and casting all sorts of bad luck and misfortune on unsuspecting mortals, the devil finally gets what’s coming to him. Guatemalans have a date with the devil each year at exactly 6 p.m. of December 7. Effigies or images of the devil are thrown out of dwellings together with the trash. The effigies are set afire in the tradition known as Quema del Diablo or Burning of the Devil. This seemingly un-Christmassy custom is actually how the Guatemalans start their Christmas season. The burning of the devil and the trash serves as a form of purification, a depiction of good’s triumph over evil. Children are delighted with the tradition and participate by lighting the bonfire or setting off a firecracker or two. Quema del Diablo is a celebration like no other.
In Europe, a devil-like figure also makes his appearance during the yuletide season. Krampus is the counterpart of St. Nicholas or St. Nick as he is fondly called. In Europe, pre-Christian traditions intermingle with modern customs that make for an interesting holiday season. Customs that were introduced in the Middle Ages continue to be observed in modern Europe but with a twist. A number of European countries have their own antithesis to St. Nick. Krampus is popular in Middle European as well as Alpine countries. Other devil-like figures exist during the holidays. These devil-like figures like Krampus are known for dealers of punishment when good children go bad. Sometimes, instead of leaving nice gifts in nicely hung Christmas stockings, Krampus will put lumps of coals instead. Throughout the years, parents have used the image and idea of Krampus to frighten their children into becoming well-behaved kids.
You got it right! It’s Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame that is being referred to here. In Japan, Santa shares the spotlight with the man all in white. Christmas is a Christian religious celebration. Only less than 1% of the people of Japan are Christians. The rest of the Japanese practice other religions. But this does not stop the Japanese, who love festivals and celebrations, from enjoying Christmas.
Since the Japanese celebrate Christmas in a very commercial way, KFC saw this as an opportunity to up their sales during the ultimate holidays. The company launched a successful advertising campaign back in the early 70s. The Christmas Chicken Dinner was at the center of this marketing campaign. In 1974, the KFC Christmas meal was born. It consisted of chicken and wine and sold for around US $10, quite a hefty price. Still, this campaign created a new Japanese Christmas tradition.
The Japanese were made to believe that the chicken dinner was the meal of choice for Christmas and not turkey or ham. Today, millions of Japanese pre-order KFC meals to make sure their Christmas dinner is always complete. Long lines form outside KFC stores around Japan with eager Japanese waiting to get their hands on Col. Sander’s famous chicken with 11 herbs and spices. Japanese Christmas = KFC.
The Dead and the Three Kings
Portuguese celebrate the birth of Christ Jesus and remembers their dearly departed at the same time. On December 25, as families gather for dinner, they make sure that the alminhas a pehar or “souls of the dead” also have their own place on the dining table. They believe that serving their departed loved ones food will ensure good fortune and good luck in the coming future. This holiday tradition is called Consoada or Consoda.
Apart from the dearly departed, the Three Kings are also part of the Portuguese tradition. Instead of Santa, the Three Kings are known to be the gift givers during this season. Once the children have their gifts, families come together for the Consoada to eat and be merry, sharing the feast with family and friends, both in the flesh and in spirit.
The Witch of Christmas
La Befana is older than Babbo Natale (the Italian moniker for Santa Claus). While Babbo Natale only made his appearance after the second World War, La Befana has been around for centuries. Since the 13th century, La Befana, said to look like an old witch with hunched shoulders, a big red nose and a face/body covered with soot, has been part of the Italian Christmas tradition. Le Befana is often pictured wearing a black shawl or a jacket with colorful patches and having a broomstick. She was said to have joined the Three Wise Men in looking for the baby Jesus. Although she declined the invitation at first saying she was swamped with chores, Le Befana decided to follow the Wise Men. Unfortunately, she never caught up with the Wise Men and never found the baby Jesus.
Each year, on the 12th night of Christmas, which is traditionally the 5th of January the Eve of the Epiphany, Italians expect La Befana to travel on her broomstick to go from house to house in search for the baby Jesus. She would enter houses through chimneys bringing candy (“caramelle”) or fruit to good children and onions, garlic or black coal to naughty ones. Gifts of toys and other things may also in La Befana’s bag. Children leave not milk and cookies but wine and a plate of food popular in the region for La Befana. Kids also write her letters hoping to get something good in their stockings the morning after the 5th of January.
St. Nicholas’ Angels
The day of gift giving in the Ukraine is on St. Nicholas Day. Angels accompany St. Nicholas, who is also the patron saint of children. When he arrives on December 6 each year, St. Nicholas is seen dressed in a red Byzantine bishop’s attire. The angels that accompany the saint often test the Ukrainian children’s knowledge of catechism. The test is the prelude to gift giving.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas (“Sinterklaas” in Dutch) is not assisted by angels but by Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete.” According to Dutch legend, Zwarte Piet is the African or Moorish slave whose task is to abduct naughty children so he can bring them to Spain. To the Dutch at that time, Spain was as wicked a place as hell. Of course today, Zwarte Piet’s image is more politically correct. Zwarte Piet makes his appearance on the feast day of St. Nicholas that falls on December 5 in the Netherlands and December 6 in Belgium. Together, they distribute presents and sweets to children who made it to the “nice” list.
For Christians throughout the world, the real symbol of Christmas is not Santa Claus but the newborn child, Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus Christ is the true gift giver and that the gifts He bears are more important than material gifts. During the holiday season, remember that beyond the glitter and the sparkle, the tinsel and the tassel, beyond the ho-ho-hos and the sleigh rides is the message of peace, love and charity for the whole of humanity. Let this Christmas season be the best for you, your loved ones and the rest of the world!
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!